Equal access to justice for all

The idea that “everyone deserves their day in court” is both central and essential to our democracy – and is exactly why we are educating Wisconsinites about the need for strong recusal rules for our state’s judges and justices.

Currently, no rule has been established in Wisconsin requiring a member of our state judiciary to step aside (or “recuse” themselves) if they received a large campaign donation or benefited financially from a party in a case before their court.

In fact, Wisconsin’s judges and justices are allowed to decide for themselves when they should recuse from a case. And this current rule was actually written by a partisan, deep-pocketed special interest group, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and adopted verbatim by the then-conservative majority on the court in 2009.

Further, there is no requirement that Wisconsin judges inform individuals involved in a case in their court that a bias might exist.

This potential for even the appearance of bias in our courts corrodes the very essence of “justice for all.”

Strong recusal rules would repair and strengthen public confidence in Wisconsin’s judiciary by ensuring equal access to justice in our state courts.

In January 2017, 54 retired jurists from all over Wisconsin – including two former State Supreme Court Justices – petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to adopt strong and clear recusal rules for Justices and Judges at all levels with specific thresholds that would trigger mandatory recusal from cases. Wisconsin was found to have the fourth weakest judicial recusal rules in the nation and these retired jurists sounded the alarm.  Common Cause Wisconsin strongly supported this petition and submitted strong testimony to the Justices.

And yet, five justices voted against conducting any public hearings on the petition. The two other justices voted to conduct them.

Similarly, on April 20, 2017, by the same vote, the Supreme Court rejected the petition of the retired jurists and kept the current policy of self-recusal in place.

Since then, Common Cause in Wisconsin and the retired judges have worked to revive the issue of judicial recusal in Wisconsin that had been seemingly buried with the Supreme Court’s action of April 20, 2017.

In October 2017, we held three public hearings on the issue – in Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Madison – and continues our outreach and educational efforts in 2018, 2019 and 2020 elsewhere in the state including in La Crosse and Wausau.

And, finally in 2023, we have a  progressive Wisconsin Supreme Court majority that has signaled it is open to revisiting the judicial recusal issue and in working toward regaining public confidence in the impartiality of the state’s highest court and for courts at all levels.

The fairness and impartiality of our judges depends mightily on their separation from the effect and influence of campaign contributors and outside, special interest campaign spending groups.

You can advance this needed reform in Wisconsin by insisting that the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and judges at all levels support stronger recusal rules.

Wisconsinites deserve free and equal access to justice and an impartial court system.

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Background and History of Judicial Recusal in Wisconsin