While constructing a foundation for political order in our country, one common belief united many of the founding fathers: keep the judiciary branch separate — not just from politics. They believed the judiciary should be separate and unbiased in all aspects regarding its rulings. By doing so, the intellectual minds behind the country believed that the judiciary would be fairer if they weren’t ethically compromised by conflicts of interest. While fair is completely subjective, the sentiment largely has remained constant and important for the larger American legal framework.
Thus, when the judiciary begins to trespass on these institutional values that separate them from the rest of the country, effectively polluting and damaging ethics, it’s a big deal.
This overarching slow dissolvent of order and form is exactly what’s corrupting the judicial branch of Wisconsin. Recently, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided there’s somehow nothing wrong with staying on the bench, and ruling on cases that involve parties who donated considerable amounts of money to their election campaigns. Judges vow to be unbiased in cases involving those acting in their efforts, perpetrating a client-patron relationship that’s soiling the judiciary and political climate.
It’s ridiculous to even equivocate that somehow this isn’t a conflict of interest. In retaliation to this drastically unethical step held by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, former judges across the state are voicing their concerns and their outright disappoint and anger.
United under this banner of dissent, 54 former judges from across the states signed a petition to call out the egregious nature of such a move.
The petition read: “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 judgments.”
The conservative majority declined to even hear or acknowledge the petition.
As one judge claimed, the treachery was purely “heartbreaking.”
“I, too, am heartbroken and sad…. Though large contributions to a judicial candidate were a real rarity…it would have been routine for a judge to step aside upon receiving a significant contribution from someone with a serious interest in the case. It was automatic,” Dan Stier, former chief legal counsel of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said.
It’s important to consider the effects of such a measure: a party going to court against a large quasi-plutocratic entity whose money had gone to the judge presiding over the case would instantly feel cheated. It’s everyone’s right to a fair trial— it’s explicitly written in the constitution, so by circumnavigating around the one document that purportedly guides legality in our country is cripplingly counterintuitive and ironic. Irony is where it starts, and a path of hypocrisy and harmful consequences is where it leads.
First, if we look to the campaign contributions of the five conservative judges on the supreme court, there’s a trend of remarkably high amounts of money raining down from far-right organizations that claim to be fighting for the republic and for the Constitution. Similarly, these same judges have donated to Republican politicians who identify as “constitutionalists.” But this conflict of interest so overwhelmingly violates fair trials, making it almost comical to see how hypocritical this decision is. And then there is the potential for vexing.
Looming dark in Wisconsin is the rampant spread of partisan gerrymandering that has decimated democracy since its Republican-drawn districts were established in 2012. In the 2014 Wisconsin Assembly elections, Republicans won 63 of the 99 seats, despite only receiving 52 percent of the vote and two years before they gained 60 seats despite their inability to even gaining an overall majority of votes.
And with judicial election primaries being held Feb. 20, the upcoming national midterms and our own gubernatorial elections approaching, gerrymandering needs to be addressed.
Intertwined with all these issues, like gerrymandering, is the connective tissue of politically polluted plutocratic purveyance that is campaign finance within the Wisconsin Judiciary.
By deciding that somehow, miraculously, judges are impartial to making decisions when their patrons are parties of their cases is beyond asinine — it’s antithetical to the purpose of a separate judiciary and it’s antithetical to fair trials, something that will continuously strike relentless against Wisconsin harboring consequences if something doesn’t change immediately.
Adam Ramer ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in history and political science.