April 19, 2014

Longer Supreme Court terms raise concerns

The head of a state government watchdog group has doubts about a proposal to change how long State Supreme Court justices can serve.

A State Bar of Wisconsin committee is suggesting that justices be limited to a single 16 year term, instead of their current 10 year terms with the possibility of reelection. Supporters believe judges would be more independent if they do not have to worry about raising campaign cash for future elections.

Since 2007, Wisconsin state Supreme Court races have seen a drastic increase in spending by third party groups. While the position is nonpartisan, most races in recent years have seen candidates clearly falling on the liberal or conservative side. The divide on the court has been in stark relief in recent years during the highly contentious debate over Governor Scott Walker’s collective bargaining law and came to a head with a physical confrontation between two justices two years ago.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe says the State Bar proposal does not deal with the “root causes of the problem” currently facing the high court. He says there’s a widespread public view that the court is already beholden to special interests, because of the millions of dollars being spent by outside groups to get them elected in the first place.

In fact, McCabe believes that having a seat on the bench filled for 16 years could actually escalate the problem. He says “those interest groups are gonna be anxious to influence that election because it’s the one shot that they’ll have at influencing who sits in that seat for 16 years.”

The proposal would also require a constitutional amendment, which McCabe says would be difficult to enact. Such a measure would have to pass two consecutive legislative sessions and then be approved in a statewide vote. McCabe has doubts about whether the Legislature would even be willing to introduce a proposal.

McCabe says lawmakers would be better served considering campaign finance reform measures that would reduce the influence of special interest groups. He says the Supreme Court could also adopt policies that require justices to recuse themselves when a case comes up that involves a party that donated to their campaign.