Without coming right out and saying so, Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert's column in this morning's paper raises the question of whether restrictions should be placed on the constitutional right to recall public officials in Wisconsin.
Rickert laments that "a man who's done nothing worse than employ conservative principles to balance the state budget is facing recall." This echoes the familar refrain that state officials should not be removed from office over policy differences.
There is even a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the grounds for recall in Wisconsin, establishing that office holders could be recalled only if they are charged with a serious crime or if there is a finding of probable cause that they violated the state ethics code.
It's worth noting that the presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty goes out the window. An official would need only to be criminally charged to be eligible for recall, not convicted. And what exactly constitutes a "serious crime?" The proposal defines it as one "punishable by imprisonment of one year or more."
OK, let's say a legislator is driving to a town hall meeting and crashes into another car and the other driver is killed. An eyewitness tells police that the legislator ran a red light and also appeared to be driving at least 10 miles an hour over the speed limit. The eyewitness also tells officers the legislator appeared to be texting on a cell phone when the crash occurred.
If the eyewitness account is true, the legislator is guilty of a terrible lapse of judgment and quite possibly manslaughter. In his defense, the legislator insists he was driving within the speed limit, entered the intersection when the light was still yellow and only reached for the cell phone to turn it off. Still, he is charged with negligent vehicular homicide. That is a Class G felony in Wisconsin and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Under the proposed constitutional amendment, he would be eligible to be recalled from office by voters regardless of the outcome of the criminal case.
On the other hand, an elected official who habitually lies could not be recalled. Such an offense does not fit the definition of a serious crime, nor is it a violation of the state ethics code.
Politicians who mislead voters by concealing their true intentions during election campaigns and then springing their plans on everyone only after taking office could not be recalled. Again, no serious crime, no ethics code breach.
Politicians who abuse power by creating laws making it harder to vote and drawing new districts favoring their party and kneecapping opposition groups by limiting their ability to raise campaign money and giving themselves control over a previously independent watchdog agency could not be recalled.
A politician whose actions are so divisive and polarizing that they rip the state in two and paralyze a legislature could not be recalled.
I understand the impulse to place limits on the constitutional right to recall public officials so that only those guilty of some high crime could be removed in such a manner. But where do you draw that line? How do you draw that line?
Which is the higher crime, a tragic traffic accident or abuse of power and violation of public trust?
I say leave it to the people to decide when to exercise this constitutional right. The only needed check on this power the people possess is the incredibly large number of petition signatures the recall law requires citizens to gather. Crossing that threshold is no easy feat, which is why recall elections have been so exceedingly rare over the course of our state's history and why they will remain exceedingly rare. It takes a highly unusual set of circumstances to make the recall of a public official a viable option for citizens to consider.
It just so happens such conditions exist in our state today.