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Want better judges? Elect better people

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Want better judges? Elect better people 

State bar ‘fix’ for Supreme Court will make things worse

Waukesha Freeman October 3rd, 2013 Page A6 Opinion

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The Wisconsin State Journal reported Tuesday that the governing board of the State Bar of Wisconsin is proposing state Supreme Court justices be term limited to one 16-year term. Currently under our state Constitution, terms are 10 years with no limits on a justice’s ability to run for re-election.

The hope is that the term limits will somehow solve the problems of the court, including friction among the members.

It’s a classic case of “we need to do something, so let’s do something.” As is usually the case, just doing something without thinking it through will only makeproblems worse.

The acrimony on the court does not stem from whether justices serve one term or three. The acrimony among the members is the result of differences in judicial philosophy. The liberal minority, led by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, is more interested in an ideological decision-making process, while the conservatives on the court are more inclined to give deference to the Legislature when it comes to writing the state’s laws.

Then there is Abrahamson’s leadership style, which can best be described as contentious. Even former Justice William Bablitch and current Justice Patrick Crooks, on the liberal wing of the court, were upset with Abrahamson’s leadership. They went public with their complaints in 1999, and campaigned for her opponent.

Term limits would do nothing to address either issue. It will not remove ideology as a factor in elections, and it will not make Supreme Court Justices more pleasant people.

Actually, a one-term limit would only make the ideological tension worse. Once experience is removed as an issue, because no justice will be running for re-election, the elections will largely focus on judicial philosophy.

If you think special interests are involved in judicial races now, wait until every Supreme Court race is for an open seat. Every election will make the recall elections look like a race for local alderman.

That’s in large part by an organized effort by the political left in Wisconsin to turn judicial races into referendums on specific issues, corrupting the very nature of court elections.

The recent death of former Justice Don Steinmetz, a moderate who refused to kowtow to liberal judicial activism on school choice and abortion, reminds us that this campaign by the left has been going on in Wisconsin judicial races for quite some time. He was targeted in his re-election efforts back in 1990 by liberal special interests.

If the Wisconsin Bar wants to help alleviate tensions on the court, they could condemn the liberal attempts to turn judicial elections into a purely political exercise. Instead, the solution they’ve proposed would only make the problem worse.

Term limits will also not prevent the voters from putting justices with intemperate personalities like Abrahamson on the court. Voters had the opportunity to vote her out, while considering her judicial philosophy and leadership style, but have repeatedly chosen to retain her due to her experience.

The voters were wrong, but as the late Ed Koch said, “The voters have spoken, and now they must be punished.” The voters are getting the court they should have expected when they voted for Abrahamson’s re-election.

Term limits would do nothing to prevent voters from making a similar mistake about the temperaments of Abrahamson’s successors. Worse, a 16-year term will mean voters would be stuck with the mistake longer.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, members of the board recognized that the public would never accept a so-called “meritbased” selection system. The state bar is correct to recognize voters will never accept such an unaccountable system of justice, nor should they.

A friend who recently passed away, local attorney Kelin Olson, would often say, “It’s 99 percent of the lawyers that give the other 1 percent a bad name.” If we really want better judges, what we really need are better people becoming lawyers.

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