Constitution Day Symposium on Judicial Elections

JustRunGreen09On Saturday, I ran a 5K in Stevens Point, in support of Justiceworks, Ltd., a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the advancement of programs and practices that secure right relationships between offenders, victims, and their communities” in Portage County.  My father lives and works in that community and asked me and my sisters to participate in the race.  It was incredibly pleasant, a flat run along the river in picture-perfect weather.

I knew very little about the organization before agreeing to do the run, and in my post-race googling I discovered that Justiceworks is a co-sponsor (along with the Portage County Bar Association and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point) of an upcoming symposium entitled Judicial Elections:  Navigating the Collision Course (note to lawyers: 7 CLE credits approved).  The conference will take place on September 17, 2009, and the lineup of presenters is impressive, including Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of the national Justice at Stake Campaign; Thomas J. Basting, Sr., who served as President of the Wisconsin State Bar Association in 2007-08; and Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

The conference brochure promises that the program will “raise awareness about the significant issues confronting the State of Wisconsin in its judicial elections,” noting that

Over the past several years, the Wisconsin Supreme Court
elections and other state judicial elections have depicted the concerns this conference
intends to address, the battle between the First Amendment of the Constitution and free
speech versus concerns of judicial independence and an individual’s right to due process

Over the past several years, the Wisconsin Supreme Court elections and other state judicial elections have depicted the concerns this conference intends to address, the battle between the First Amendment of the Constitution and free speech versus concerns of judicial independence and an individual’s right to due process.

The presentations look really interesting; for instance, Brady Williamson will give discuss recent US Supreme Court decisions including the June decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc., in which a split court held that a state supreme court justice’s failure to recuse himself from a case in which the defendant was a corporation, the board chairman and principal officer of which was a primary contributor to the justice’s campaign.  Other presentations will include a discussion of  “The Role and Responsibility of the Media” with respect to judicial elections, and a panel discussion entitled “Approaches to Change–Caperton and Beyond.”

The time is ripe for discussion of Wisconsin’s judicial elections, particularly in light of Caperton, the full implications of which are not yet clear. As you probably know, perceived failings in Wisconsin’s system of judicial elections led the Wisconsin Supreme Court to appoint a Commission on Judicial Elections and Ethics in 1997.  Unfortunately, that Commission’s final report remains useful background reading for the upcoming symposium, because the problems discussed there persist, such as the tensions between maintaining  a sense of judicial impartiality and independence while also respecting the First Amendment.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thomas Foley

    There’s a similar workshop on September 16* at the Milwaukee Bar Association (co-sponsored by that other law school).

    Details here (.pdf).

    * Contemporaneous with Gableman’s ethics hearing.

  2. Daniel Suhr

    Hi Prof. Slavin,

    While the conference does look interesting, it is unfortunate that it does not promise a robust discussion of the pluses and minuses of various reform options under consideration.

    The Justice at Stake Campaign, which is funded by George Soros, has very strong feelings about what reform should take place. So do Common Cause and the Wisconsin State Journal. Mr. Basting took a leading role in the Gableman/Butler race with his WJCIC, although his authority to do so was questioned by bar governors. And the Chief Justice has been a consistent advocate for taxpayer financing of elections.

    As far as I can tell, the only voice who will support robust free speech is Mike B. Wittenwyler from Godfrey Kahn. That’s unfortunate. Wisconsin is best served by an open dialogue among stakeholders. This looks like a pep rally for reform, with the only question being how far should we go?

  3. Josh Byers

    Daniel is directly on point with his comment. Too many of these “conferences” on judicial elections in Wisconsin lack balance and strong advocacy for the current system (or more directly, as Daniel states, “robust free speech”). Obviously, funding is limited and the local bar associations can only bring in those speakers who are willing to participate, but I feel that too often the deck is stacked in favor of those advocating for reform. If a greater effort were made to bring more advocates for the current system into the discussion, then the legitimacy of the discussion would be enhanced. Instead, for those not in favor of reform by way of public financing or restrictions on third-party expenditures, they walk away from the discussion with nothing more than a few CLE credits and a headache.

  4. Jessica E. Slavin

    Dan and Josh, I agree wholeheartedly that more learning and better thinking happens when discussion of an issue includes a broad range of perspectives, especially if there is genuine discussion of the merits of those options among the speakers and the audience. I myself find it difficult to predict based only on the brochure that this CLE will be too one-sided, but you raise valid points. At the same time, while I am aware of a wide range of opinion about how best to reform the system, it honestly didn’t occur to me that there are many folks who genuinely think that Wisconsin’s current system of judicial elections is working really well, as is.

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