SHEBOYGAN (AP) — More than two dozen Wisconsin judges from 16 counties — including Dodge County’s Andrew Bissonnette — were among the tens of thousands of people who signed petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker, according to a newspaper analysis.
The review by Gannett Wisconsin Media found that 29 judges, or about 12 percent of the state’s approximately 250 county-level judges, signed the petition. Milwaukee County had the most judges sign the petition at 11, or about one-fourth of judges in the county.
Gannett Wisconsin Media tried to contact all 29 judges; five responded, but Bissonnette was not one of them.
The data from the newspaper report also shows that none of the state’s 16 appeals court judges or seven Supreme Court justices signed the petition.
The judges interviewed by the newspaper said their decisions to sign were constitutionally protected, and they were not banned by the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct.
Still, at least one judge has been under scrutiny. Dane County Judge David Flanagan has been under fire for not disclosing his support of the recall before he issued a temporary restraining order against a Walker-backed voter ID law. The Wisconsin Republican Party has filed a complaint with the state Judicial Commission, arguing that Flanagan should have revealed that he signed the petition.
Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and current law professor at Marquette University, said she was surprised that so many judges signed. She said it’s critical that judges do everything they can to show they are free of political influence.
“I believe the judges had the right to sign the petition, but it creates a problem with the appearance of impartiality if and when they may be called upon to decide any issues involving the governor or the Republican Party,” Geske said.
According to the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct, judges cannot participate in activities of a political party or candidate and should avoid “the appearance of impropriety.”
The code does not specifically mention recall petitions, said Jim Alexander, executive director of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission. Alexander said he did not sign the petition because “it’s not something proper for my position.”
Monroe County Judge J. David Rice said he called Alexander for advice and was told that signing the petition would be OK.
“He said in his opinion that didn’t violate the judicial ethics, so I relied on that in signing,” Rice said. “If he’d have said, ‘No,’ I wouldn’t have done it.”
Some judges who signed the petition said they were supporting the right to vote.
“I concluded that by signing a recall petition, I wasn’t advocating for a particular party, I was advocating for the recall process, which I thought was completely separate and apart,” said Brown County Judge Mark Warpinski.
“What I did by signing the recall petition is say that the people of Wisconsin should be allowed to vote again for governor,” said Milwaukee County Judge Charles F. Kahn Jr. “I did not support any candidate and I did not support any political party. This is a substantial and important distinction.”
Kahn said it was “good to know” that dozens of other judges also signed.
Some judges who didn’t sign the recall petition had a different take on the issue.
“When you sign up for this job, to some extent you compromise your ability to express your own political beliefs one way or the other,” said Brown County Judge Marc Hammer. “I think if you’re asked to judge the conduct of others, you need to be mindful of what your conduct is.”
Adam Skaggs, senior counsel for Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said he doesn’t believe signing a recall petition would result in sanctions, but he said it is a gray area that should be avoided.
Professor Richard Painter of the University of Minnesota Law School questioned why judges would expose themselves to the potential perception of bias. He said judges often have to decide cases where the governor or lawmakers are parties, and they sometimes have to rule on close elections.
“For judges to be getting involved in the question of whether the governor ought to be recalled, I think is highly inappropriate,” Painter said.