Politicized court undermines the judicial impartiality citizens should demand.
On this page Judge Alan Bates, who served the Rock County Circuit Court bench for 14 years, writes of his experience and, among other things, the nonpartisan nature of Wisconsin judicial elections. He urges his readers to bring an open mind to elections and, above all, to cast their ballots.
For Judge Bates and the vast majority of his colleagues on the bench across Wisconsin, the points he makes are accurate. They are not politicians, they are not party zealots, but they are elected. Because of their commitment to nonpartisan fair play and the law, the system has worked well.
And then there’s the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
There, each election cycle, it’s a pitched battle between liberals and conservatives—read: Democrats and Republicans—for control of the court. Millions of dollars, most coming from party regulars and their organizations, are raised and spent with the clear objective of injecting influence into the law. To argue otherwise is to deny the obvious.
Not that every case before the court comes down to party philosophy. Most legal matters are not hyper-political. But those who “invest” in the court ante up with an eye toward predictability when those political cases do land on the docket. And, with rare exception, they get what they pay for as the court typically splits definitively along partisan lines.
Here’s the most recent example. Last week the conservative-controlled court at least temporarily blocked municipal and county clerks from responding to absentee ballot requests by mailing out the documents. The vote was 4-3, again perfectly split down ideological lines. Immediately, clerks responsible for actually conducting the election raised the alarm, saying significant delay—let alone some later order to change the ballots—could result in early voting havoc and jeopardize election reliability.
For weeks, President Trump has been blasting mailed ballots and mail-in voting and claiming that’s the only way he could lose to challenger Joe Biden, because it would mean the election was rigged.
That’s why, for years now, we have questioned the continued wisdom of electing Wisconsin Supreme Court justices. The court has been hijacked by the political parties and their die-hard cores, for the purpose of putting a thumb on the scales of justice when partisan cases are decided.
Citizens expect partisanship in the executive and legislative branches of government, though we’re not sure they expect the kind of bitter warfare so prevalent today. But at any court, including the Supremes, we remain convinced what people really want is an honest referee, guided only by the law. A court dominated by ideology—liberal (Democrat) or conservative (Republican)—when political cases arise is an affront to good government.
Back to Judge Bates. What he says, and more importantly what he lived on the court, should be the standard at every level. It’s not. And we are all the worse for it.