Judicial Campaign Contribution Quid Fails to Produce Quo

The sun may start rising in the west over Wisconsin. Justice Annette Ziegler has recused herself from a case.

As detailed in this space last week, Ziegler has ruled on cases involving a bank that her husband helped to run; has ruled on cases involving a company in which she owned $50,000 in stock; and recently even sat on a case involving an organization that spent $2 million -- more than the total expenditures of her entire campaign -- to help her get elected.

In sum, whatever attributes Ziegler might have previously demonstrated, an Aristotelian radar for the rules of ethics was not one of them. The Wisconsin Ethics Board, which reached a settlement with Ziegler that included substantial fines, noticed. Editorial boards around the state noticed. A special three-judge panel convened to address her violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct and Wisconsin ethics rules applicable to all public officials, noticed. The Governor of Wisconsin, who called a special legislative session to address the problem of justice-for-sale noticed. Bloggers noticed. Governmental reform groups noticed. This week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court itself (yes, including Justice Ziegler), clearly having noticed, even sent a truly remarkable letter to Governor Doyle unanimously endorsing the concept of judicial public financing.

Nearly everyone in Wisconsin, save one person, it seemed, had noticed.

Yet now, maybe, finally, possibly, could-it-be true, and could-it-be-because-of-all-of-the above, Justice Ziegler has noticed?

The details of yesterday's recusal are here. If you believe in due process, feel free to scream Eureka. And have little doubt that interest groups everywhere are mortified by this rare failure of a quid to produce even the appearance of a quo. But also realize this: so far it seems that Justice Ziegler's newfound enlightenment does not extend to mathematics.

Yesterday's decision to recuse, in light of $17,000 in combined contributions from groups representing home builders and real estate agents, stands strikingly at odds with her continued participation in the case involving the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, who independently spent $2 million to support her election.

Give a candidate a choice between $2 million in supportive independent expenditures (a choice they technically could not make) and $17,000 in direct contributions, and no candidate in their right mind would choose the latter. So if $17,000 appropriately triggers recusal . . . hmm, I suspect all of Wisconsin sees the problem.

Maybe soon, Justice Ziegler will too.

James Sample is counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.