MADISON — Wisconsin could become the only state to limit its Supreme Court justices to a single term if a proposal put forward by a task force of attorneys becomes law.
The task force has recommended amending the state constitution to limit justices to a single 16-year term, in part as a way of stemming the flow of money into judicial elections. The amendment would have to be approved by the state Legislature and voters.
Sixteen years is about the average length Wisconsin justices have served in recent years.
No state currently limits justices to a single term, according to the American Judicature Society, which advocates for judicial ethics and merit-based appointments of justices.
“It would go some way to curing the perception that judges were looking for handouts,” K.O. Myers, research and program director for the group, told the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/181oHj2 ). “If they aren’t up for election again, it removes the perception that they are ruling to get someone to donate in the future.”
Sixteen years is longer than the set terms in other states, but Rhode Island appoints justices for life and Massachusetts and New Hampshire have appointments until mandatory retirement at age 70.
Joe Troy, a former circuit court judge who chaired the task force, said there has been no political support in Wisconsin for appointing, rather than electing, justices. However, he said political leaders from both parties have said they would consider term limits.
“One of the hurdles we have in gaining support for this change is convincing those who currently have influence in judicial elections — and re-elections — that we are all better served by justices who focus on the law and the facts of a case, and do not act out of political concerns,” Troy said.
Wisconsin’s Supreme Court races are officially nonpartisan, but judges are often seen as liberal or conservative.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said she didn’t think term limits would halt the flow of money into judicial races. Instead, she suggested a law that would force judges to remove themselves from cases involving campaign donors. An independent review board would have to enforce the law, she said.
UW-Madison political scientist Barry Burden said he didn’t think the proposal would reduce spending on elections, but it might encourage justices to be more independent once they were elected.