Court Watch

Judges At MU Panel Demand Recusal Rules

Common Cause and judges at town hall meeting say state’s judicial system must be reformed.

By - Oct 13th, 2017 11:59 am

Wisconsin Supreme Court. Photo by Royalbroil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wisconsin Supreme Court. Photo by Royalbroil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

When special interest groups run ads and donate money toward judicial races, former Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Michael Skwierawski offers a descriptive phrase: “Legalized bribery.”

Skwierawski is among a small contingent of justices across the state hoping to reopen a petition aimed at strengthening the state’s recusal rules for justices at all court levels in Wisconsin.

“We have people writing million dollar checks to elect people — and that’s just in the judicial races,” Skwierawski said Wednesday at a town hall meeting at Marquette University.

Skwierawski and two other law professionals — former State Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler and Marquette law professor Ed Fallone, who ran unsuccessfully for the court — took center stage at the town hall meeting by backing an advocacy group’s efforts to reform the existing recusal rules.

The group, Common Cause in Wisconsin, is presenting the state Supreme Court with a proposal calling on the state’s highest justices to reveal campaign donations beyond $10,000.

Furthermore, Common Cause’s petition is asking that appeals judges disclose donations of more than $2,500, county judges reveal donors providing more than $1,000 and municipal judges disclosing who or what organization gave in excess of $500.

A similar petition fell flat early this year when it was presented to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has a majority of conservative-leaning judges. Justice Rebecca Bradley, for instance, blasted the petition when it was presented.

But Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause, said his group continues to seek reform in the recusal rules. Wisconsin, he said, ranks 47th in the nation: 46 states have stronger rules on recusal.

“We cannot continue this form of government,” Skwierawski said Wednesday. “We need this rule changed. We need this petition reconsidered.”

Because judges at all levels take an oath to demonstrate impartiality, Butler said the prevalence of money from outside groups can muddy the waters — particularly when the information is not transparent.

“The judges have to make decisions that are based on facts and law,” Butler said. “They are not beholden to donors.”

From his vantage point, Butler said he believed reform is imperative because, “We have to protect the integrity of the justice system in Wisconsin.”

For Fallone, the prevalence of outside interests hit him personally nearly five years ago.

In 2013, he was defeated in his race against incumbent Justice Patience Roggensack. He ran on a platform that included a pledge to seek reversal of a Supreme Court ruling that stated judges do not have to recuse themselves in cases involving parties who have given them donations.

Fallone said his stance made him a target that campaign season. Several groups — including Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, who supported the court ruling against recusals — ran ads against him.

That year, Fallone said his own campaign was able to muster just $200,000 in campaign ads. By contrast, outside groups, including the WMC and Club for Growth, had close to $1 million in funding to back Roggensack, whose own campaign spent around $140,000.

“What happens is the candidates outsource their campaigns to some individual groups,” Fallone said.

Attempting to dispel comments Bradley and other conservative justices aired early this year when the first petition was presented, Fallone said the effort to reform recusal rules is not meant to imply any justices lack impartiality.

“But, this can make it appear that way,” Fallone said. “We all want a justice system that runs on integrity.”

Common Cause in Wisconsin has one remaining town hall meeting scheduled on Oct. 24 in Madison.

Categories: Court Watch, Politics

One thought on “Court Watch: Judges At MU Panel Demand Recusal Rules”

  1. Jason Troll says:

    In 2014, Sheriff Clarke and Chris Moewes had an election. NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $150,000 dollars to defeat Clarke. County Exexcutive Chris Abele contributed a large portion of the $400,000 spent against Clarke under the PAC-Greater Wisconsin Committee. No liberal shed a tear for Clarke. Your side has no moral high ground. If Democrats were winning state judgeships this issue would not be spoken of.

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