Ballot-box justices

In this March 25, 2011 photo, Justice David Prosser, left, and Asst. Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, wait before a debate at Wisconsin Public Television studio in Madison, Wis.

Periodically, someone in Colorado gets frustrated with our judicial system and concludes that the way we select judges and justices in this state is the problem. Inevitably, they begin clamoring for the direct election of judges.

We hope anyone who believes that is a better system has been watching the drama unfold in Wisconsin over the past few weeks.

In the Dairy State, Republican incumbent Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was up for re-election. Normally, such judicial elections don’t generate a great deal of controversy, even though the incumbent may face multiple opponents. As recently as February, it appeared Prosser would be easily re-elected.

But that was before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker created a firestorm by pushing legislation to end collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Democratic state senators temporarily went into hiding in Illinois, hoping to prevent passage of the bill. But Republican lawmakers passed it anyway, and the issue quickly ended up in state court.

Both sides quickly realized it will wind up before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and Prosser’s re-election or defeat, on a court that leans narrowly Republican, could determine the case’s outcome.

National groups began pouring money into the race. Labor unions supported Prosser’s opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg, who has hinted she would vote to overturn the Walker legislation.

Tea party types and other Republican groups shovelled money into Wisconsin on behalf of Prosser, even though he is generally seen as a more moderate Republican than Walker and has been careful not to take a stand on the collective bargaining law.

And, of course, there has been overheated rhetoric from both sides, demonizing Prosser and Kloppenburg.

As of Wednesday morning, following Tuesday’s election, Kloppenburg held a 204 vote margin out of roughly 1.5 million votes cast. Then on Thursday, one county clerk announced she had inadvertently deleted more than 14,000 votes from her computer. When those votes were added to the totals, Prosser had a victory margin of more than 7,500.

Naturally, there are now claims of voter fraud and conspiracy, and an all-but-certain court case over the election. No matter who is eventually seated on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, all of their decisions will now be viewed as partisan in the extreme — especially the ruling that will eventually be handed down on Gov. Walker’s collective bargaining legislation.

We certainly don’t agree with all rulings by Colorado judges and Supreme Court justices. But they are appointed by the governor after being vetted by a judicial search committee, and they must stand for nonpolitical retention elections every few years. As a result, there is a much better chance that Colorado judges and justices are considering cases dispassionately, not politically. And we don’t have the spectacle of big bankrolls from out-of-state groups being used to try to influence judicial elections and court decisions.


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