Thursday, March 28, 2013

Snitching and Recusal: A very bad analogy.

My fellow Purple Wisconsin blogger Alex Runner is not, as far as I can tell, a lawyer. He seems like a bright guy and I enjoy his writing. But in his post today about Justice Pat Roggensack and her response to the complaint against Justice David Prosser, his lack of a legal education shows. With all due respect, he completely misunderstands the issues.

Alex compares the recusal of certain Justices to the "no snitching" culture which residents of our central cities struggle against. "They're not snitching," he writes. (Italics in the original.) We will, he laments, never know what really happened.

Wrong. Utterly long.

They all "snitched."

They all made statements to law enforcement officials. If Alex is interested, he can read them on line. Properly stated, Alex' problem is not that they refused to "snitch" but that he apparently doesn't believe - or like - what a majority of them had to say. Based on those statements, law enforcement officials declined to file charges. So "we know," based on that decision, that the responsible law enforcement agencies did not think that was possible to prove that anyone assaulted anyone else.

The Judicial Commission did file a disciplinary complaint with the Court. Because those justices who were witnesses to the event have recused themselves, the Court can't act on that complaint. (The Consitution requires four justices to constitute a quorum.) Alex goes on to say that the Court should have referred the matter to the Court of Appeals which he seems to think could have addressed the issue. He chides the recusing justices for not "allowing an outside, objective body to examine what transpired." To support his position, he cites another non-lawyer, Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy.

Here are the main problems with Alex's critique.

First, if a majority of the Court recuses itself, then it cannot act to refer the matter to the Court of Appeals - whether one regards such a referral as pro forma or not. While some argue that a referring order is not necessary, the presiding judge of the Court of Appeals does not think so and it is he who has refused to appoint a panel to hear the case.

Second, even if a panel - Alex's "outside, objective body" - was formed, it could not decide the case. Under current law, only the Supreme Court itself can impose judicial discipline. If a quorum cannot sit on the case, then it can't be decided. One can argue that the law should be otherwise, but it's not. I'm sure that Alex, who so admirably promotes lawful behavior in his neighborhood, would agree that we cannot ignore the law now because it has become inconvenient.

Third, comparing the decision to recuse to a refusal to "snitch" trivializes the important - and difficult - ethical issues which each justice had to evaluate in deciding whether or not to recuse. The general rule is that a judge cannot sit on a case in which he or she is a witness. That prohibition is expressed both in statute and in the Code of Judicial Conduct.

One does not have to be a lawyer to understand why this is so. It is impossible to impartially evaluate your own testimony. The witness statements given by the Justices (i.e., what they said when they "snitched" to local law enforcement) reflect differing perceptions of the events. Deciding the case will require determining which of these differing perceptions most accurately captures what happened. It is humanly impossible to put aside what you believe that you saw and impartially evaluate your own version of events against the statements of others.

Nevertheless, some argue that the normal rule requiring recusal should be put aside pursuant to something called the "Doctrine of Necessity." This is the concept - rarely employed - that normal recusal rules can be disregarded if it is "necessary" to do so and there are sufficient assurances that normal precepts of due process and impartiality can be preserved. (My own analysis of the matter can be found here, here and here, including my suggestion as to how the Judicial Commission could more fruitfully address the matter.)

In a written opinion, Justice Roggensack considered the Doctrine of Necessity and explained why she believed that it could not be applied in this case. Perhaps Alex has carefully reviewed her opinion, read the cases that she cites and come to the conclusion that he disagrees with her legal analysis.

Perhaps he has, but a trite and facile comparison of her careful and thorough legal reasoning to "no snitchin'" does not suggest so.

I suppose one can argue that Justice Roggensack and her colleagues should have found a way around the normal rule of recusal and heard the case. Had they done so - given the content of the statements each of them gave to the police - it is almost certain that Justice Prosser would have been exonerated. What they say they saw simply does not warrant discipline.

But it would be hard to make an argument that the way in which they have addressed a difficult and unusual legal problem is much of a reason to unseat an incumbent Justice. "Yes to the Doctrine of Necessity" would not be much of a campaign slogan.

Alex concludes by saying that those who value "value ethics, transparency, rule of law, justice" ought to vote for Ed Fallone implying that Justice Roggensack does not believe in these things.

I read Wisconsin supreme court decisions for a living. I can assure Alex Runner that Pat Roggensack is not the monster he seems to think she is. She is a smart and conscientious jurist - as are her colleagues. We can disagree about the law without attacking the good faith of those we disagree with.

It could be that there are people who believe that there are "process" reasons to unseat Justice Roggensack. My own sense is that it takes an almost wilful misunderstanding of the issues to do so. I think that most folks who are voting for Ed Fallone are doing so because they want to move the Court to the left.

That is certainly their right, but a little candor about it - and a bit less character assassination - would be refreshing.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.


Anonymous said...

I'd appreciate hearing your comments on Bradley's responsibility to take action if Prosser's actions were criminal or unethical.

George Mitchell said...

"I think that most folks who are voting for Ed Fallone are doing so because they want to move the Court to the left."

And most folks who are voting for Rottensack (spelling?) are doing so because they want the Court to remain on the right!

So who are you trying to kid!

"That is certainly their right, but a little candor about it - and a bit less character assassination - would be refreshing."

You mean how Gableman trashed Butler, correct?

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