And why should it matter to me?
Like sports referees, judges should be impartial. But that’s impossible if they have close ties to or received large amounts of money from someone in their courtroom. Anti-bias “recusal” laws keep judges accountable by ensuring they don’t hear cases when they have a conflict of interest or even the perception of a conflict.
States should adopt stronger ethics rules requiring state court judges to excuse themselves from a case when there is a conflict of interest.
This would prevent, for example, judges from being influenced by campaign contributions they receive from lawyers, companies, and other groups who appear in their courtrooms.
In most court systems, there are rules requiring a judge to withdraw from making decisions in cases when the judge has a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest occurs when a person or corporation gives a large sum of money to a candidate’s campaign and then is involved in a lawsuit that the judge will hear.
This conflict of interest, or lack of recusal, could lead to unethical behavior. To be ethical, a judge must make an impartial decision. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, which makes its own rules and code of conduct, currently has ineffective and inadequate recusal rules:
“A judge shall not be required to recuse himself or herself in a proceeding based solely on any endorsement or the judge’s campaign committee’s receipt of a lawful campaign contribution including a campaign contribution from an individual or entity involved in the proceeding.”
Essentially, the rule is that there are no recusal rules. In the future, if the Wisconsin Supreme Court adopts stronger rules, this statute would be changed to reflect so.
In 2009, the League petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to adopt standard recusal rules. The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied this request by a 4-3 vote.
And in 2017, the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to follow the recommendations of 54 retired Wisconsin judges to tighten its recusal rules. The retired judges’ proposed:
- $10,000 limit on individual campaign contributions for Supreme Court race
- $2,500 for the Courts of Appeal
- $1,000 for Circuit Court
- $500 for municipal court
The Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected the recommendations of the retired judges and did not hold a public hearing.