Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects petition to create recusal standards over campaign donations


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The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority has rejected a petition from a group of retired judges seeking rules requiring judges and justices to recuse themselves from cases involving significant donors to their campaigns, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.

The justices voted 5-2 along party lines against the recommendation to develop a scale of donation amounts that would trigger recusals.

“The appearance of partiality that large campaign donations cause strikes at the heart of the judicial function, which depends on the public’s respect for its judgements,” said the petition, signed by 54 retired judges.

But the conservative majority on the court said the petition assumes that judges aren’t capable of determining for themselves when it is inappropriate or unethical for them to hear cases.

Daniel Kelly, a conservative appointed to the court by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2016 to fill a vacancy left by a retiring justice, said the message to judges would be that they aren’t trustworthy.

“I think that’s caustic and inappropriate,” Kelly said, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been a partisan battleground in recent years as it handled politically charged matters, such as deciding whether to permit an investigation into possible coordination between Gov. Walker’s recall election campaign and outside groups in 2011, the New York Times reported two years ago.

The Times wrote that the political battles “prompted reports of dysfunction and partisan discord on the [Wisconsin] Supreme Court.”

The court put a stop to the Walker probe in 2014, though it recently ordered some of the documents to be released to the public, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The Wisconsin State Journal said Thursday that the justices’ decision to reject the petition concerning campaign contributions to judges “comes during a long bout of public turmoil on the increasingly conservative, and fractious, court.”

The petition from retired judges asked that municipal judges recuse themselves in matters in which a party had donated $500 to their judicial election campaign. For circuit judges the amount would be $1,000; then $2,500 for appellate judges; and $2,500 for state supreme court justices. Under current law, donors can give up to $20,000 to candidates for the state supreme court, the Wisconsin State Journal reported in an earlier story.

Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley said such a rule would violate the U.S. Constitution because campaign donations are free speech, the Associated Press reports.

“The people of Wisconsin have a First Amendment right to speak out in favor of the judges they support and in opposition to the judges they oppose without being penalized,” Justice Bradley told the AP. “If a judge does not act with impartiality and integrity, that judge will answer to the people of Wisconsin on election day.”

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