Federal Court: Wisconsin judges can engage in political speech

By Chris Rizo | Feb 19, 2009

Barbara Crabb

MILWAUKEE, Wis. (legal Newsline)-State judges in Wisconsin may join political parties, endorse partisan candidates and solicit campaign donations, a federal judge has ruled.

A Milwaukee judge challenged Wisconsin Judicial Commission rules banning jurists from political involvement. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John Siefert, in a lawsuit, said the rules ran roughshod over his First Amendment right to free speech.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb in the Western District of Wisconsin agreed. In her 65-page opinion, Crabb said increased public financing might be necessary to advance more fair judicial races.

"Although many in the legal community demonize judicial elections and exalt a system of appointment, a 'merit" selection process has its own flaws and is no guarantee that the judiciary will be free from partisan bias or the perception of it," Crabb wrote.

In her opinion, Crabb referenced the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of the Republican Party of Minnesota v. White in which the high court affirmed the free speech rights of judicial candidates.

"Reviewing these canons in light of the Supreme Court's opinion in White and defendants' failure to show that any of the rules challenged by plaintiff is narrowly tailored to promote a compelling state interest, as required under the First Amendment, I must conclude that the rules at issue do not withstand strict scrutiny," she wrote.

"This conclusion should not be viewed as denigrating the conscientious efforts made by the state supreme court and many lawyers over many years to draft canons that they believe are necessary to maintain a non-partisan judiciary. It may be that the job is impossible."

The state Judicial Commission was represented by Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen's office.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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