By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE, July 25 (Reuters) - Wisconsin state judges who were among nearly a million residents who signed petitions that triggered an unsuccessful recall election against Republican Governor Scott Walker did not breach their judicial obligations, a state ethics panel has found.
The Wisconsin Judicial Commission concluded the judges "had not otherwise acted in a manner that would reflect adversely on ... impartiality or the appearance of impartiality," according to a brief letter to the judges on June 26.
The Judicial Commission does not publicly disclose its rulings. It reviewed the applicable rules and concluded that the judges' activity in signing a petition was not prohibited, two judges who received the letter told Reuters.
The commission's probe into the matter was launched after the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative organization based in Virginia and headed by radio personality Mark Levin, filed a complaint on March 20.
Levin asked in a letter to the commission that a "full range of sanctions be considered for these egregious ethical violations, including as appropriate reprimand, censure, suspension and removal."
Landmark was not available for comment on the ruling.
According to Landmark, at least 29 judges signed petitions calling for the recall of Walker, who became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall when he defeated Democratic challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on June 5.
Democrats and labor organizations, angered over Walker's controversial changes to laws covering public sector unions, gathered 930,000 signatures to force the first-term governor into the special election.
"For me, the fact that this went to this point is reflecting how highly partisan and charged the political (climate) that we are in," said Brown County Circuit Court Judge Donald Zuidmulder, one of the judges who received the commission's letter.
The Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from being members of a political party or participating in political affairs or endorsements. It does not indicate whether signing a recall petition is an "inappropriate political activity."
"Although the rule contemplates the continuance of nonpartisanship on the part of Wisconsin judges and those seeking judicial office, judges are not expected to lead lives of seclusion," the code also says.
James Alexander, the executive director of the Judicial Commission, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Monroe County Circuit Court Judge David Rice, who also confirmed that he received the letter, said he asked Alexander if he would be in violation of any rules or provisions of the judicial code before he signed a petition.
"He told me that I would not be, so this basically confirms the advice that he gave me," Rice said. "I acted in my capacity as a private citizen and not as a judge."
Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and two Republican senators also survived recall elections in June. Six other Republican senators faced recall elections in the summer of 2011. In all, three Republican senators lost recall elections, resulting in a 17-16 Democratic majority in the state Senate.
Another state senator, Tim Cullen, said on Tuesday he was leaving the Democratic caucus, and would decide whether to become an independent. He said he would not join the Republican party, apparently leaving the state Senate evenly split. (Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Greg McCune and Paul Simao)
Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.
Let's Get It On: Wave Election Sweeps In Conservatives
In 2010, a surge of Tea Party momentum and backlash against Democrats helped elect conservatives including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/02/AR2010110208185.html" target="_hplink">became the state's first Republican governor since 2002</a>. Walker promised to cut taxes and create 250,000 new jobs, but <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/19/AR2011021904205.html" target="_hplink">a deeper look into his past</a> also showed a politician who had inflamed tensions with unions before.
Welcome To The Jungle: Clashes With Unions
After taking office, Walker <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/11/us-wisconsin-budget-unions-idUSTRE71A7FP20110211" target="_hplink">announced a number of controversial proposals</a>, including eliminating collective bargaining rights for state employees and reducing public employee benefits. <a href="http://www.wuwm.com/news/wuwm_news.php?articleid=7768" target="_hplink">He said the reforms were necessary </a>to prevent thousands of layoffs. Facing anger from unions, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/11/scott-walker-unions-wisconsin-national-guard_n_822225.html" target="_hplink">Walker threatened</a> to mobilize the state's National Guard in response to any disruptions. The announcement <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/16/wisconsin-governor-scott-walker-backlash-public-workers_n_823901.html" target="_hplink">was met with backlash</a> across the state.
Hush: Wisconsin Bans Collective Bargaining
The fight over Walker's proposed budget was contentious, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/20/wisconsin-democratic-senators-illinois_n_825748.html" target="_hplink">with Wisconsin Democratic state senators crossing state lines </a>to Rockford, Ill. in an attempt to stall the vote. In March 2011, Walker signed the budget, significantly <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-03-12-wisconsin-law-analysis_N.htm" target="_hplink">curtailing collective bargaining rights</a> for union-affiliated public employees. Thousands of protesters <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/16/wisconsin-budget-protests_n_824213.html" target="_hplink">gathered in Madison</a>, and labor leaders and Democrats <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/11/scott-walker-signs-wiscon_n_834508.html" target="_hplink">vowed to fight back</a>.
We're Not Gonna Take It: Foes Organize
In the months following his signing of the bill, Walker's opponents organized, announcing their intention to recall the governor and his supporters. They <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/05/wisconsin-protesters-walkerville-tent-capitol-scott-walker-budget_n_871523.html" target="_hplink">erected a tent city</a> and believed they'd <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/07/scott-walker-wisconsin-election-supreme-court_n_846042.html" target="_hplink">won a surprise victory over</a> a conservative state supreme court judge, before amended voting totals from one county reversed the victory. Walker <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/16/scott-walker-mistakes-policies_n_900820.html" target="_hplink">continued to defend his policy </a>but said he had made mistakes in the political execution.
Fake Empire: State Senators Face Recall
Wisconsin Democrats scored a victory in their attempt to unseat Republican state legislators when they defeated six "fake" Democrats <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/14/scott-walker-recall-_n_898116.html" target="_hplink">running in the party's primaries</a>. Four of the six Republicans targeted for recall <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/12/scott-walker-wisconsin-recall-election_n_925331.html" target="_hplink">held onto their seats</a> in the general election.
Let's Get It Started: Recall Effort Makes Ballot
Petitions to recall Walker and his lieutenant governor <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/27/scott-walker-recall-signatures-wisconsin-governor_n_1304091.html" target="_hplink">gathered nearly a million signatures</a> each, far exceeding the 500,000 needed. Election officials <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/29/scott-walker-recall-wisconsin-election-signatures_n_1389229.html" target="_hplink">ordered a recall election</a>.
Us Against The World: The Fight Moves Forward
Democratic candidates faced tough odds from the start. In an April 2012 report, HuffPost's Amanda Terkel <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/scott-walker-recall_n_1401143.html" target="_hplink">noted</a> that only two sitting governors had been recalled in U.S. history. Four Democratic candidates competed in the May primary, headed by former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Better Man: Tom Barrett Wins Primary
After a tough primary, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/08/tom-barrett-wisconsin-recall-primary-scott-walker_n_1501568.html" target="_hplink">Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett</a> bested three other Democratic candidates in an early May primary. Barrett's victory set up a rematch with Gov. Walker, whom he lost to by about five percentage points in the 2010 race.
Don't Stand So Close To Me: Walker, Barrett Neck And Neck
Less than 48 hours before the recall, Public Policy Polling (PPP) released a final poll, showing <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/03/wisconsin-polls-scott-walker-recall-tom-barrett_n_1566788.html?ref=politics" target="_hplink">Walker with a narrow lead</a> over his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. <a href="http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2012/06/walker-leads-by-3-points.html" target="_hplink">PPP</a>, a firm affiliated with the Democratic Party, compiled a final poll showing Walker at 50 percent support, three percentage points ahead of Barrett's 47 percent.
The Man Who Can't Be Moved: He Survives
After a whirlwind day of voting that featured <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/05/wisconsin-recall-overwhelming-turnout_n_1572386.html" target="_hplink">swarmed polling places</a> around the state, media outlets <a href="https://twitter.com/mpoindc/status/210186998009434112" target="_hplink">called the race for Walker</a> less than an hour after polls closed. Full election results <a href="http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/2012/wisconsin-recall-results" target="_hplink">here</a>.