Monday, August 28, 2017

Redistricting Reform & Judicial Recusal

By Roger Utnehmer

Two branches of Wisconsin government are suffering the moral equivalent of emerald ash borer disease.

Like far too many once-beautiful trees throughout Wisconsin, the state legislature and Supreme Court are in danger of losing their luster.

Government derives its power from the consent of the governed. An informed electorate will never consent to the reapportionment and recusal corruption that’s plaguing the Wisconsin legislature and Supreme Court.

Every ten years the legislature, taking into account the most recent census data, re-draws district boundaries for the state senate and assembly. That practice has resulted in Wisconsin legislators picking their voters instead of Wisconsin voters picking their legislators.

It’s called “gerrymandering” and Wisconsin is among the most gerrymandered states in the country. When several hundred thousand more state-wide citizens vote for Democrats in state assembly races than Republicans and Republicans keep more than a two-thirds of the seats, the electoral process is as diseased as a dying emerald ash tree.

Legislators have drawn district boundaries so that less than 10% of the 132 districts in Wisconsin are competitive. That gives incumbents the advantage of protection and perpetuates the party in power. And years earlier, Democrats were just as corrupt when they had the power to draw district boundaries.

The solution is essential to democracy. It’s time to get the drawing of legislative district boundaries out of the hands of legislators and into a non-partisan entity like our Legislative Reference Bureau, as is done in Iowa today.

The second decaying branch of state government is the Supreme Court. Just a few years ago the Wisconsin Supreme Court was a model admired throughout America.

Today, the carcinogenic influence of special interest money and the refusal of court members to adopt a strict recusal standard put in jeopardy that long-standing tradition of fair, impartial justice.

Special interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum have dumped millions of dollars into Supreme Court races. Spending is spiraling to several million dollars a race. Yet a majority of current justices have refused to adopt rules that would regulate when they recuse themselves from voting on matters brought before the court by major campaign donors.

Who in Wisconsin would believe they can receive a fair, impartial hearing before a justice who accepted, or benefited from, millions of dollars in campaign contributions or dark money expenditures on their behalf?

Justices who take money from special interest groups or benefit from their spending should not vote on cases in which those donors are involved. If Wisconsin citizens are to have faith in their court, recusal rules need to be adopted. Only two of seven sitting judges are of that opinion. Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley stand head and shoulders above their colleagues when it comes to this common-sense contribution to confidence in the court.

Solutions are simple. Move drawing of district boundaries to the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau. Stop voting for legislators who oppose reapportionment reform. Join Common Cause, the good-government group that allows me to be among the members of their board of directors. Refuse to vote for a Supreme Court candidate who does not endorse common-sense, confidence-restoring recusal rules.

The opportunity cost of continued business-as-usual is the death of public confidence in our institutions of government. That’s a cost that will not be paid if more speak out today in support of reapportionment reform and recusal rules for the Supreme Court.

That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours.

Roger Utnehmer is President and CEO of, and a member of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board.

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