Wisconsin AG defends council against judge's First Amendment challenge

By Nick Rees | Sep 18, 2009

MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) - The Wisconsin Department of Justice defended its judicial code that does not allow judges to join political parties in front of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case involves challenges to Supreme Court judicial conduct rules that prohibit judges and judicial candidates from joining political parties, making endorsements in partisan elections and directly soliciting campaign donations.

"I believe that justice is blind. When someone walks into a courtroom they shouldn't have to worry about whether or not the judge sitting there has an 'R' or a 'D 'behind their name," Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said.

The lawsuit, filed by a state judge, argues that the Wisconsin Judicial Code of Conduct rules that prohibit him from registering as a member of the Democratic Party and endorsing candidates in partisan elections are a violation of his right to free speech and freedom of association under the Constitution of the United States.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice is in charge of representing the individual members of the Judicial Commission. Those parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Judge Barbara B. Crabb, in February, granted a motion for summary judgment and denied the defendants' motion.

The defendants then appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals with a decision expected in three to six months.

"Wisconsin has chosen, since statehood, to elect its judges and since the early twentieth century those elections, and the Wisconsin judiciary itself, have been nonpartisan. Eliminating partisanship from the judiciary is the best, and perhaps only way, to assure that the judiciary is impartial and available to decide the significant matters presented to it while still permitting Wisconsin's citizens to select judges as they always have," Van Hollen said.

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