The Wisconsin Supreme Court is under fire this week for issuing what is viewed as a slap on the wrist to one of its members: Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler. Ziegler violated fundamental conflict of interests rules by presiding over cases where she had an obvious conflict of interest. Public interest advocates noted that attorneys are routinely suspended for such violations by the courts. The case seems to follow recent cases of judges protecting their own while pursuing critics.
Ziegler presided in 11 West Bend Savings Bank cases while on the Washington County Circuit Court despite the fact that her husband sat on the bank’s board of directors.
The Court treatment of its own member does appear mild in comparison to cases involving attorneys. While Ziegler took steps to address the conflicts, it was not until the matter became a scandal with a news report that she failed to recuse herself from cases brought by West Bend Savings Bank and 22 cases identified by the State Journal involving companies in which Ziegler owned $50,000 or more in stock.
Faced with public outcry and a study showing attorneys who have been suspended for months or years for such conduct, the Supreme Court dug in its heals and seemed to chastise those who demanded equal treatment for Justice Ziegler. Referring to letters, the panel stated that “None of the members of this panel have responded to those communications: and stated that it would be improper “for us to give any heed to the public clamor, no matter how well-intentioned some of it may be.”
While it is certainly true that the court must not respond to public pressure, it seemed to ignore justified public outrage. These are not small conflicts. They reveal a total failure of Ziegler to consider judicial ethics and professional rules of conduct. The reprimand would have been more convincing as punishment if it were not coupled with language that seemed to belittle the gravity of the violation as well as the outrage of objections.
Notably, courts have shown much greater interest in pursuing their critics than their own miscreants. This is the case of Texas Judge Sharon Keller who closed the clerk’s office to a last-minute death penalty appeal, click here Yet, Florida judges have time to pursue a blogger who had the gall to criticize their brethren. Click here
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