This has mostly passed by the wayside already, attention spans being as limited as they are, but there has been a bit of a kerfluffle lately in the state supreme court regarding “Chief Justice” Patience Roggensack’s high-handed approach to her position. She has a penchant for rewriting court rules willy-nilly. The result this time is that Joseph Olson, one of the attorneys sanctioned for bringing frivolous motions to preclude public access to the Republican redistricting scheme, is now charged with evaluating judicial conduct. (He’ll have strict standards, you betcha!)
The most recent issue entails appointments to the state Judicial Commission, the body responsible for enforcing high standards of judicial behavior, both on and off the bench, without compromising judicial independence. Wisconsin’s Judicial Commission has nine members: five citizen members appointed by the governor, and two attorneys, a circuit court judge, and an appeals court judge, all appointed by the supreme court.
Last spring, an attorney vacancy occurred on the Judicial Commission. The Appointment Selection Committee (which has existed for about 15 years under internal supreme court rules) offered the supreme court justices a list of potential people to fill the vacancy; four members of the court rejected all of those names. A new list of nominees (for the Judicial Commission and for other committees) was prepared by the Appointment Selection Committee for a November 3, 2015 conference of the justices. The justices never reached this agenda item at the November 3rd conference. Consequently, and contrary to 15 years of practice in the court, the justices did not discuss the nominees and their suitability for membership on the Judicial Commission. Instead, as described by Justice Abrahamson in this document, “as justices were leaving the conference, it was suggested that the appointees be selected by e-mail and that each justice could vote for any attorney she or he wished, not limited to the nominees of the Appointment Selection Committee or even to the persons whose resumes the Appointment Selection Committee had accumulated.” (Emphasis added.)
On November 16, after all the justices other than Justice Abrahamson had voted, either by delivering votes in person or by email to “Chief Justice” Roggensack, Ms. Roggensack announced that Joseph Olson was the appointee to the Judicial Commission. Only after repeated requests for the ballots from Justice Ann Walsh Bradley did Justice Abrahamson learn that Mr. Olson had received only three votes.
There are a couple of curious things here:
- Mr. Olson was not one of the nominees from the Appointment Selection Committee. Given that his name was not offered, how did he end up the “independent” choice of three justices? Sounds like collusion, doesn’t it? Isn’t it enough that the governor controls five appointments to the Commission?
- Why did “Chief Justice” Roggensack think that three votes constituted a majority? Justice Abrahamson did not vote in this, because she deemed it too chaotic. But you still need four votes to get a majority if six people are voting.
- Who were the holdouts? How was it that Mr. Olson received only three votes? Is there someone among Justices Prosser, Ziegler, Gableman, and R. Bradley who feels strong enough to buck Ms. Roggensack? Very interesting …
This episode, of course, is one among many where “Chief Justice” Roggensack shows her willingness to ignore precedent, whether it be legal precedent or the precedent of past practice, to get the result she desires. Since at least three of the citizen members of the Judicial Commission are also big-time Republican donors, it is unlikely that complaints to that body will get her under control any time soon.
All the more reason to wish Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley long life and continued good health, and to get out the vote to defeat Rebecca Bradley.