- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A group of ex-judges asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday to adopt rules requiring judges and justices to recuse themselves from cases involving campaign donors.

Fifty-four former judges sent a petition to the court asking for rules requiring municipal judges to step aside if they’ve received at least $500 from a litigant or attorney. The threshold for circuit judges would be $1,000, for appellate judges $2,500 and for justices $10,000, half of the $20,000 individual donor limit for a justice.

The limits also would apply if contributions are made separate from a judicial campaign but are clearly designed to influence the judge’s election. That portion of the proposal is designed to force judges to step down if so-called issue advocacy groups spend heavily on their behalf. Such groups aren’t subject to campaign finance restrictions because they don’t tell people which candidate to vote for or defeat.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that candidates can coordinate with issue advocacy groups.

“As money in elections becomes more prominent, citizens rightfully ask whether justice is for sale,” the petition said. “The appearance of partiality that large campaign donations cause strikes at the heart of the judicial function, which depends on the public’s respect for its judgments. In this age of Super PACs and other independent campaign organizations, perhaps the influx of money to purchase access to legislators has numbed us to ethics. But we are not the legislature, we are the judiciary.”

The petition also calls for litigants to file statements with the court saying whether they or their attorneys donated $250 or more to judges or justices hearing their case. It seeks a state constitutional amendment allowing appeals judges or retired justices to sit on cases if multiple justices are forced off cases. Amendments must pass two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum to be added to the constitution.

It’s unlikely the proposal will gain any legs with the high court. Conservative-leaning justices voted 4-3 in 2009 to adopt rules saying donations by groups and individuals and independent spending don’t by themselves require judges to step aside in cases. The conservative majority on the court has grown to 5-2 since then.

Asked if any justices would comment on the petition, Supreme Court spokesman Tom Sheehan said they can’t comment on pending matters.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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