Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Recalls and Judging
Last night, I got a call from WKOW in Madison about the fact that Judge Flanagan had signed a Walker recall petition and that the Republican Party intends to file a complaint with the Judicial Commission. This prompted me to take a look at the Judicial Code of Ethics in between coverage of Super Tuesday and Championship Week. (Harvard is dancing for the first time since '46!).
I report. You decide.
In Dan Bice's column, Mike Maistelman says that its not a problem because the Governor was not sued in his personal capacity. It's not that easy.
SCR 60.06(2)(a) prohibits a judge from, among other things, participation in the "affairs, caucuses, promotions, platforms, endorsements, conventions, or activities of a political party or a candidate for partisan office" and says that a judge may not "[p]ublicly endorse or speak on behalf of its candidates or platforms."
Has he done either of these? I think it would be a stretch to say that he did the former but less of a stretch to argue that he did the latter. Signing a recall petition could be viewed as a public endorsement of a partisan position. If the purpose of the rule is to prevent judges from publicly injecting themselves into partisan elections, he can be said to have done that.
It is possible (although also a bit of a stretch) that he simply thought the voters should have a chance to vote in a recall election. He might also argue that signing a recall petition is, in any event, more like a general indication of support such as affiliation with a party. The rules prohibit that, too, but that prohibition was held to be unconstitutional in a case called Siefert v. Alexander. The Siefert court held that, absent some specific and individualized relationship, the relationship between simply announcing party affiliation and the potential for bias was insufficiently close to justify the rule's restriction on speech.
But the Siefert court upheld the rule against endorsement. The state does have an interest, it said, in preventing judges from injecting themselves into partisan elections. But maybe a signing a recall petition does differ in material ways from an endorsement. The signature of any one individual is normally not used to promote a candidate or partisan platform.
One can argue - and I have - that ethical rules should be construed in a way that gives those who are subject to them clear notice of what is requirend and which minimizes interference with constitutionally protected rights.
But there are two more rules to worry about.
SCR 60.05(a) says that a judge "shall conduct all of the judge's extra-judicial activities" so they do not "cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially as a judge. " Here is where Brother Maistelman's point might have some weight but it's hardly dispositive. Walker was, as he notes, sued in his official capacity. But the recall petition is aimed at removing him from that capacity for acts undertaken in that capacity. The voter ID law has been one of his more prominent legislative accomplishments.
If a judge signs a recall petition and then sits on a a case challenging a key legislative accomplishment of the targetted politician in which the politician is a defendant, might a reasonable person question his capacity to act impartially? Is it reasonable to be concerned that the judge, who has publicly stated that he wants that politican out of office might be tempted - however subtly - to help that process along by holding that the politician has promoted and signed into law an unconstitutional act?
In answering that question, is the concern underlying SCR 60.06(2)(a) - the idea that judges should not inject themselves into partisan politics - instructive?
Similarly, SCR 60.04(a) provides that "a judge shall recuse himself or herself in a proceeding when the facts and circumstances the judge knows or reasonably should know establish one of the following or when reasonable, well-informed persons knowledgeable about judicial ethics standards and the justice system and aware of the facts and circumstances the judge knows or reasonably should know would reasonably question the judge's ability to be impartial"
The same question must be asked and answered. Keep in mind that the recusal question here is a bit different than when asked at the Supreme Court level. The Supreme Court is a collegial law developing court of last resort. Justices who recuse themselves are not replaced. Recusal raises a whole set of issues that simply don't exist at the trial court level where a judge who steps aside is simply replaced by another.
But keep in mind as well that it is not enough to say that he exercised poor judgment or should not have signed the petition. That his signature would become public and that people would raise hell was perfectly foreseeable. For him to sign a recall petition and then proceed to sit on a case involving one of the Governor's more prominent policy initiatives was certainly to sow the wind. But even if that makes signing a poor choice, that alone does not make it a violation of the ethical rules.
So what do you think?