Saturday, July 10, 2010

State Supreme Court relaxes ethics rules

WIth the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Elena Kagan taking center stage nationally, the actions of our own State Supreme Court last week went relatively unnoticed.

Earlier this week, the highest court in the state of Wisconsin formally changed their ethics rules on a split vote, choosing to allow justices of the Court to hear cases that involve their biggest campaign contributors.

Though recusal was at the sole discretion of the justices themselves prior to this, the new rule change makes it acceptable for a justice to sit on a case that involves someone who put wads of money into their pockets during the campaign season.

And let’s face it: if someone is giving you thousands of dollars in order to be elected a justice of the Court, are you really going to rule against them if a case comes up that piques their interests? More likely, a justice on the High Court in Wisconsin will find a way to justify a ruling that favors their important benefactors.

What makes this new rule even more laughable -- that is, if it weren’t so serious -- is the fact that the justices themselves didn’t even write it: Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a contributor to numerous pro-corporate conservative causes (including a few State Supreme Court races), penned the new standards for ethics on the Court that were adopted this week.

It isn’t just a figure of speech when I tell you that big business had a hand in crafting this new rule: it’s as literal as it can get!

As if this rule change weren’t bad enough, another terrible injustice occurred in the same week, in the same body that should be the bastion of justice for our state no less. During his campaign in 2008 against then-sitting Justice Louis Butler, current Justice Michael Gableman’s campaign created an advertisement that implied Butler, during his time as a public defender, helped get a man accused of child molestation off-the-hook -- and then, once freed, this man again committed another molestation.

However, the ad was a lie -- Butler lost the case, and the man went to prison. The second crime occurred after his prison sentence. Butler’s only “crime” was that he performed his job function as a state-appointed public defender.

Despite the lies in the ad, it was effective: it convinced many in the state that Butler was wrong for the job, and Gableman went on to win by a two percent margin.

So Gableman faced an ethics probe this year as to whether he violated long-adopted rules for campaigning (such as “no lying in campaign ads”). In light of the facts clearly showing that he did indeed lie in his ad, misrepresenting Butler’s character in the process, the Court deadlocked down partisan lines, effectively allowing Gableman to continue working for the Court without any disciplinary action.

In one week’s time, two different ethics questions were posed, each resulting in a relaxation of ethics rules for the State Supreme Court. The Court’s conservative faction has changed judicial norms to allow for judges and justices in our state to rule on cases involving their campaign benefactors, and to allow lies and misrepresentations in campaign commercials to go without reprimand of any kind.

In one week’s time, the Court has decided that corporate interests are more important than average citizens, that your voice means nothing when big business is whispering in the ears of Lady Justice.

It’s a terrifying thing how in just one week’s time the entire justice system within our state can go down in shambles. It’s high time we reform the judicial branch in Wisconsin to reflect a more honest system of justice for all, not just the privileged corporate elite that are having an increasingly direct role in selecting our judges and justices.

Wisconsin requires a judicial system that will reflect the morals and values of Wisconsin citizens who want justice for all.

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