Burns offers integrity to Supreme Court
On Feb. 20, Wisconsin holds a primary election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to reduce the number of candidates to two for the seat to be vacated by Justice Michael Gableman. The two top vote-getters face off in the general election April 3. The candidates include two circuit court judges, Rebecca Dallet from Milwaukee County and Michael Screnock from Sauk County, the latter a former Gov. Scott Walker supporter appointed to the bench just a few years ago. The third candidate is Tim Burns, a practicing attorney from Madison. For the following reasons, I urge voters to support Tim Burns for this position.
One of the most discouraging developments in our state government over the past eight years has been the decline in the national reputation the state's highest court held for impartiality and integrity. The excellent reputation it once enjoyed began to diminish when political partisanship and conservative political action money began to influence what had been the traditionally nonpartisan process of electing judges to the Supreme Court. Large sums from corporate and wealthy individual donors as well as political action committees were pumped into the campaigns of the most recently elected judges. It started in the campaign that led to the election of Justice Gableman in 2008 and has continued ever since. The last two justices, Rebecca Bradley elected in 2016 and Daniel Kelly appointed in the same year, were politically active conservative lawyers who supported Gov. Walker and were appointed by him to lower level judgeships shortly before becoming members of the Supreme Court.
One factor contributing to this growing lack of trust in the independence and impartiality of the state's highest court occurred in 2010 when the conservative majority of the court decided that justices need not disqualify themselves from cases simply because of contributions they have received no matter the amount. In a 2014 study, the Center for American Progress criticized Wisconsin's lack of recusal standards by ranking only three states lower for their handling of real or perceived conflicts of interest posed by campaign contributions. In 2015, the same conservative majority held that campaigns of judicial candidates in all jurisdictions may freely coordinate with issue advocacy organizations without limitations on what such organizations spend and with no requirement to disclose the source of such funding. In the same year, the legislature increased the direct contribution limits to all judicial candidates, including a 20-fold increase to $20,000 for Supreme Court candidates.
This trend disturbed so many retired judges that during April of last year, 58 of us submitted a petition requesting the court to adopt reasonable recusal rules for all judges based on amounts of campaign contributions received from a lawyer or party in a case. Certain minimum amounts were proposed for each level of judgeship. The petition also asked the court to invite the participation of the entire bench, the Wisconsin Bar Association and the public in considering such action since it involved such an important issue. Finally, the petition also proposed procedures for reporting contributions and revealing the identity of the people or groups who financially supported the election of the judge or justice presiding over a case involving contributors.
When the petition was presented to the Supreme Court on April 20, 2017, the conservative majority quickly rejected it by a 5-2 vote without stating any rationale for its decision. Only Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley voted against the dismissal after arguing the court should at least allow a public hearing on what so many retired judges believed was necessary to restore the public trust in our judicial system. The petitioners had felt the recusal rules must be strengthened in our judicial system if we continue to expect justice to be blind, not biased.
While the petition cannot be resurrected to present to the court again, Wisconsin voters have an opportunity to do something about changing the makeup of the court in this coming election. To that end, I think Tim Burns would be an excellent choice. He is an experienced practitioner who is well known for his integrity and knowledge of the law. Moreover, of the three candidates, he has been the most outspoken in criticizing the influence that big special interest money has had on Supreme Court elections. His opposition to the conservative majority's arbitrary refusal to consider any reasonable recusal standards is a major part of his campaign. He has also voiced strong opposition to the governor's playing politics with our judicial system by packing the high court with former supporters who seem unwilling to impose any ethical restrictions whatsoever on the authority of a judge to sit on a case based on the amount of campaign money received from a party or attorney.
Lastly, throughout his career, Tim Burns has been an ardent supporter of voting rights by opposing unreasonable barriers such as shortening early voting, eliminating same day registration, and of course, restrictive voter ID requirements. Since there has been no evidence of any significant fraud in the form of voter impersonation having occurred in Wisconsin or anywhere else for that matter. Tim has long believed that voter ID laws have caused far more harm than good by suppressing the voting rights of many citizens.
In conclusion, I endorse Tim Burns for this important position. I believe he has the strength of character and courage to restore the independence and integrity that the court once held. We need him on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.