In Rock County, ethics still matter

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Trial court judge provides example for his brethren up in Madison.

AWHILE BACK WE WROTE about an effort by retired judges who were rebuffed by the conservative wing of the Wisconsin Supreme Court over establishing some consistent, reasonable criteria for recusals.

The majority justices wanted no part of any rule-setting, preferring to keep decisions entirely to themselves whether to recuse or not. Readers will remember the issue arose when various justices refused requests to recuse during the so-called John Doe investigations related to recall elections against Gov. Scott Walker and others. Some of the organizations involved in the case before the court had spent millions of dollars on behalf of electing sitting justices, who then turned a deaf ear to calls for them to step aside before ruling in their benefactors' favor.

CONTRAST THAT AGAINST what took place in a Rock County courtroom last week.

The Janesville Gazette reported on the case of a Janesville man who pleaded guilty to a charge of drunken vehicular homicide. The defendant was scheduled for sentencing before Judge Michael Haakenson. But the judge short-circuited the process by recusing himself from the case, explaining he had learned the defendant was a close relative of an individual with whom Haakenson had a professional relationship.

Haakenson said judges are required to disqualify themselves if they have a conflict of interest, or if a reasonable person might conclude they cannot be impartial.

The Gazette reported District Attorney David O'Leary's frustration that sentencing could not be completed. That's understandable. Delays create additional burdens, not least of which is more stress for victims and families.

But we'd rather have a judge err on the side of maintaining high ethical standards than act with the blatant disregard demonstrated at the Supreme Court.

VOTING PATTERNS SHOW citizens are most energized by presidential elections, followed by elections for governor and then legislative seats. Trailing way at the back are elections for nonpartisan positions like judges, city council and school board members.

That needs to change, because widespread disinterest is what has produced the growing trend of politicizing the courts. When barely 1 in 10 eligible voters choose to show up at the polls, a motivated minority with big-bucks backers can stack elections to place political hacks on the courts. Then we get robe-wearing politicians who see nothing wrong with sitting in judgment on cases involving outfits that were instrumental in paying to get them elected.

How could any reasonable person detect even a smidgen of conflict in that?

Good grief.

Citizens get the government they deserve. This is what happens when 90 percent of voters sit it out.

And to Judge Haakenson: Thank you for demonstrating character, thereby proclaiming that ethics still matter in Rock County.

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