In-term high court appointments are routine

OF COURSE GOV. SCOTT Walker unilaterally appointed his favorite candidate to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, giving her the huge advantage of incumbency in next spring’s election.

Governors have been doing that for more than a century. It’s the rule, not the exception, and it demands more oversight.

Most people think Wisconsin elects its high court members. And eventually it does. But nearly two-thirds of all justices over the last 100 years joined the court by gubernatorial appointment, long before any public vote. So did more than half of the last 25 members, and nearly half of the current court.

The governor gets to fill vacancies, which occur often because a justice’s term is 10 years. And once a justice is appointed to the high court, he or she is rarely voted off.

So Justice Rebecca Bradley, recently appointed by Gov. Walker to the court, will be favored to hold her seat in next spring’s election. Bradley replaced former Justice Patrick Crooks, who died in office last month.

Often those appointed to the high court serve for years before having to face voters. That won’t happen this time because Crooks’ term was to end next year, and he wasn’t seeking re-election.

But incumbency will still help Bradley. She can put the word “Justice” in front of her name, implying more experience and helping her raise campaign money.

Wisconsin needs a better system for selecting its top judges. The governor shouldn’t get complete control when filling vacancies. Moreover, Wisconsin’s best legal minds shouldn’t have to beg for money, court special interests and sling mud in judicial elections to serve on the state’s highest court.

Remember: Judges are supposed to be above the partisan fray as neutral arbiters of the law. And when big campaign donors come before a judge for a legal decision, the appearance of bias is inescapable, damaging public trust.

Just as bad is making judges look over their shoulders when making controversial or unpopular decisions. Failing to rule in favor of a powerful group could lead to millions of dollars in attack ads in the next election.

That’s not how the judicial branch of our government is supposed to work. It’s different from the legislative and executive branches in that it’s supposed to be insulated from the whims of the public to better protect individual freedoms and rights.

That’s why appointing high court members based on merit is best - with more than one politician involved. The federal government, most states and other nations appoint their top judges. And unlike Wisconsin, most of them provide some oversight, such as Senate confirmation. Some states require a governor to pick a candidate from a list of qualified people.

Wisconsin lets its governor chose whomever he or she wants, which risks cronyism and increases partisan influence. That’s true regardless of whether the governor is a Republican or Democrat.

Wisconsin should move to an appointment system based on merit. A selection committee dominated by lay people - not lawyers - would choose a handful of experienced, respected, independent candidates for high court consideration. Then the governor would nominate from the list. The entire process would be open to the public. That’s how Arizona does it.

No system is perfect. But Wisconsin shouldn’t give unilateral appointment power to the governor. Nor should it force the best judges to shill for money and votes like the worst of politicians. — Wisconsin State Journal, Oct. 18


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