Legal Ethics

Big Contributions Alone Don’t Require Recusal, Wis. High Court Says

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court has rejected proposed rules that would have required automatic recusals if judges received contributions from litigants or law firms above certain thresholds.

Instead, the court in a 4-3 vote adopted judicial conduct rules saying that contributions or endorsements alone can’t force a judge off of a case, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. The court rejected one petition for a rules change that would have required automatic recusal with $1,000 in donations, and another petition that set the threshold at $10,000, according to the Wisconsin Law Journal.

An editorial in the Capital Journal criticized the court’s action. “The Wisconsin Supreme Court this week had a chance to whittle away at the influence that big money has had on court elections in recent years, but blew it,” the editorial says.

The editorial says adopting contribution caps would have helped fight perceptions that big donations influence judicial rulings. “Justice Annette Ziegler, for instance, only last year wrote an opinion that favored Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce just a year after WMC had spent $2 million on campaign ads favoring her election,” the Capital Journal wrote.

Ziegler was among the four justices who “see no harm in accepting wads of special interest money,” the editorial alleges.

Another justice, Michael Gableman, said the rule adopted by the court “memorializes the First Amendment rights of the people to express their political views.”

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