State Bar Supports Judicial Term Limit

The State Bar of Wisconsin is advocating for a change in how members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court are elected. While current law allows members of the high court to run for an unlimited number of 10 year terms, the governing board of the Bar recently decided it would prefer justices only serve one term of 16 years.

The new policy recommendation comes out of a report released in September by the Bar’s Judicial Task Force. The members of the taskforce, who were tasked with finding a way the State Bar could “promote a fair and impartial judiciary in order to improve the administration of justice for all persons,” started with the assumption that the public had lost confidence in the judiciary and with a determination to come up with an actionable plan.

The result, a proposal to limit justices to a single 16-year term, is favored by the taskforce, and presumably by the Bar’s governing board which adopted the taskforce’s recommendation, for the following reasons:

Sitting Justices Will Not Become Political Candidates.

The independence of supreme court justices will not be undermined by sitting justices becoming political candidates for reelection, required to seek support and approval from individuals and groups with identifiable political perspectives and economic interests that are likely to be affected by the outcome of cases that come before the court.

The Proposal Eliminates the Perception that Court Decisions Are Motivated by Concern for Reelection.

Supreme court decisions will not be subject to attack or distortion by allegations that justices’ votes were motivated by concern for their reelection.

Campaigns Are Less Likely to Generate Unfair Attacks on Sitting Justices.

Since previously elected incumbents will not be candidates, campaigns will feature fewer attack ads that demean a sitting justice.

Collegiality Will Be Structurally Improved.

The single extended term promotes collegiality on the court by eliminating the potential that justices will publicly or privately oppose a colleague’s reelection. Also, because of the new limit to a single term, more justices will have the opportunity to serve as chief justice.

Nonpartisan Elections Are Preserved, and Frequency Is Reduced.

The proposal maintains Wisconsin’s tradition of nonpartisan election of supreme court justices but reduces the frequency of often politically charged and costly elections.

Elections Will Result in Justices New to the Court.

Elections will not involve long-term incumbents, so the proposal will result in the periodic and predictable introduction of new justices. The proposed amendment helps to insulate justices from the political pressures of reelection, while avoiding the potentially negative aspects of life terms.

Judicial terms are set by the Wisconsin Constitution, Art. VII § 4, so changing to a one term system would require a constitutional amendment. The amendment process requires the approval of a joint resolution by two consecutive legislatures and a ratification vote by a majority of the electorate. To that end, the State Bar has formed a committee to begin educating the public about their proposal and generating popular support.

The Marquette Law School is hosting a discussion on the one term proposal on November 19.

This post originally appeared on the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council’s blog.