Monday, June 14, 2010

Federal appeals court agrees state judges can join political parties - WISCONSIN JOURNAL SENTINEL

By Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel

Posted: June 14, 2010

Madison — Wisconsin judges can join political parties but cannot endorse partisan candidates or directly solicit campaign donations, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The decision "simply allows you to be honest and forthright about party affiliation, whereas before you had to play pretend," said Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John Siefert, who brought the lawsuit against state officials in 2008 so he could join the Democratic Party.

State judges have distanced themselves from political parties for more than a century and were explicitly banned from joining them starting in 1968. But last year, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled in Siefert's favor and overturned the ban on First Amendment grounds.

On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Crabb that judges can join parties but overruled her on other aspects of the case. Crabb had ruled judges could endorse partisan candidates and make direct appeals for campaign cash, but the appeals court said the state's ban on those practices is acceptable.

The appeals court decision and Crabb's earlier ruling mean judges can join political parties and broadcast their affiliations to voters. But judges will not have their party ties printed on ballots, as happens in Illinois and 11 other states.

The decision is rooted in a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a Minnesota ethics code that said judges couldn't publicly state their views on disputed legal and political issues. The appeals panel Monday said Wisconsin could not bar judges from signaling their views "by proxy" by joining political parties.

But the 2-1 decision upheld the state's ban on partisan endorsements, saying it helps prevent judges "from becoming party bosses or powerbrokers" and thus combats corruption. The state ethics code allows judges to endorse judges and others running for nonpartisan offices.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox said he did not expect many judges to sign up with parties.

"In my opinion at least, it's better for a judge to exist as they best can in a nonpartisan capacity," Wilcox said. "If you have partisanship enter in, then there's always the suspicion (of partiality), and that's what's happened with the court both federally and in the state."

Siefert said he would appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to get the court to allow him to make some fund-raising appeals.

"If you can't ask for money, then it means special interests can hijack the campaign messages," he said, referring to heavy spending in the 2007 and 2008 state Supreme Court races.

Siefert said he thought the U.S. Supreme Court would take the case because appeals courts in two other districts have said judges can make solicitations for money.

In Wisconsin, judges can sit on their campaign finance committees and appear at their own fund-raisers, but cannot ask supporters for money or even sign their own fund-raising letters. Requests for money fall to their campaign managers or other associates.

According to Monday's decision, judges in Wisconsin disassociated themselves from parties long before their party affiliations were removed from ballots in 1913.

But Siefert said the public usually knows if judges have ties to parties.

Wilcox served in the Assembly as a Republican, as did Justice David Prosser. And last month, former Rep. Gary Sherman (D-Port Wing) was appointed to the Madison-based District 4 Court of Appeals.

The ruling comes at a time when the deeply divided state Supreme Court has been roiled over how to rewrite its ethics code. In January, the court adopted a rule, 4-3, that said campaign contributions from people with pending cases are not enough, by themselves, to force judges to step aside.

Siefert filed his suit against the members of the state Judicial Commission because the group oversees the ethics code. Jim Alexander, executive director of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, said Monday's ruling represented progress because it does not allow endorsements of partisan candidates or direct fund-raising solicitations.

Special Assistant Attorney General Kevin St. John called the decision a "partial vindication" that helps create a judiciary that "is fair and appears fair." St. John said the Department of Justice is reviewing whether to appeal the ruling on joining political parties.

Siefert, a former police officer, was elected Milwaukee County treasurer as a Democrat in the early 1990s, but he quit the party to sit on the bench, both as a municipal and circuit court judge. He rejoined the Democratic Party after Crabb issued her ruling last year, and he spent last weekend as a delegate to the party's annual state convention in Middleton.

Monday's decision was written by Judge John Daniel Tinder and joined by Judge Joel M. Flaum.

Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner dissented. She wrote that the court needed to apply a different test to reach its decision but said she likely would have reached the same conclusion as the majority.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home