State Supreme Court rejects petition to change recusal rules

Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

The state Supreme Court has rejected a petition from 54 retired judges and justices to change its recusal rules, with the conservative majority voting to keep the current standards in place.

Justice Annette Ziegler, who made a motion to dismiss the petition, said the proposed rule changes wouldn’t stand constitutional scrutiny and do not “comport” with her views of the constitution.

Meanwhile, fellow conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley said the petition presumes the state’s judges and justices “are incapable of fulfilling their oaths.”

“I reject that premise,” she said. “It is a falsehood. Every judge and justice should be offended” because it attacks their character.

Current court rules leave it up to justices to decide whether they should step off a case. The proposal, rejected 5-2, would have required judges and justices to recuse themselves if they received certain donation amounts from litigants or attorneys in a case. Voting for the petition were the court’s two liberal justices, Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson.

Abrahamson argued the proposal would increase public confidence in the courts, adding she’s seen nothing in the state or U.S. constitutions against making “reasonable” recusal rules.

But Justice Michael Gableman, another conservative, said judges and justices are able to decide independently if they should recuse themselves from a particular case.

“I defend your right to make that determination,” he told Abrahamson.

The court adopted its current rules in 2010 on a 4-3 vote, saying election spending wasn’t enough to force a judge or justice to get off a case. Since the 2010 vote, Daniel Kelly has replaced David Prosser on the court, while Rebecca Bradley has replaced Patrick Crooks. Prosser supported the current rules in the 2010 vote, while Crooks was opposed.

The January letter from the retired judges and justices asked the court to revisit the rules and draw a “bright line” on conflicts of interest.

Before shutting down the petition, the court’s conservative justices also shot down two motions on 5-2 votes; one moved to hold a public hearing on the petition, the other to adopt the petition without having a public hearing first.

Both Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, who were the lone votes for each motion, argued a public hearing was necessary.

“I can’t remember any other petition that has generated this much comment to the court, as well as outside the court,” Abrahamson said.

Overall, Ziegler, Rebecca Bradley, Gableman, Kelly and Chief Justice Pat Roggensack voted to reject the petition and the other two motions.

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