Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected a petition to change its recusal rules. The proposal, submitted in January by 54 retired judges and justices, would have required judges and justices to recuse themselves if they received donations past a certain contribution threshold from litigants or attorneys in a case. Under the petition, the threshold would be $1,000 or more donated to circuit court judges, $2,500 to appeals judges and $10,000 to Supreme Court judges.
The Court rejected the petition 5-2, with only justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson voting for the restrictions. Bradley and Abrahamson argued that recusal rules are necessary to ensure that judges act impartially.
Justices Bradley and Abrahamson had also submitted motions to hold a public hearing on the petition, but conservatives on the Court voted down the motion. More than 75 people and groups across Wisconsin submitted comments both in favor of and against the petition.
The justices who rejected the petition said that judges should be able to decide for themselves whether they should step off a case. A letter from 11 retired judges also affirmed that judicial campaign contributions are an exercise of free speech rights, and recusal rules would lead to gamesmanship and deter voters from participating in future elections.
The Court voted on current rules regarding campaign contributions in 2010, establishing in a 4-3 vote that election spending cannot force a judge off a case.