Wisconsin Supreme Court elections
|The seven justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court are chosen by the people in statewide nonpartisan elections, after which they serve 10-year terms. All judges must run for re-election if they wish to continue serving after their term expires. To learn more about these elections, visit the Wisconsin judicial elections page.
Selection of the chief justice
The chief justice of the supreme court is chosen by seniority and serves in that capacity indefinitely.
Background on chief justice selection
Wisconsin is one of eight states that use the seniority system to select chief justices for their supreme courts. This selection method became part of the Wisconsin Constitution in 1889, when voters opted for seniority over a dedicated seat for the chief justice. The chief justice seat was established by the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1852 and lasted until the 1889 amendment. Wisconsin voters amended the constitution again in 1903 to expand the court to seven members and a 1977 amendment allows the longest-serving justice to decline the chief justice's office.
The next significant effort to change the seniority system came in 1985 with a proposal by state Sen. Gary George to allow justices to elect their chief. George sponsored 1985 Senate Resolution Joint Resolution 80, which called for election of the chief to a four-year term by fellow justices. This proposed amendment did not pass through the senate and the effort was left aside until 2011. Sen. Rich Zipperer and Rep. Tyler August proposed joint resolutions in the senate and assembly, respectively, calling for election of a chief justice following the inauguration of any new justice. Both resolutions failed to pass and August's 2012 resolution also failed to make it out of the state house.
An effort to change chief justice selection from seniority to a vote of fellow justices began with Sen. Tom Tiffany and Rep. Rob Hutton, who proposed joint resolutions in the state senate and assembly in October 2013. Both measures proposed a two-year term for chief justices with a limit of three terms. Sen. Mary Lazich's amendment removed the three-term limit and 2013 Senate Joint Resolution 57 was passed. Amendments referred by the legislature must pass two successive sessions of the legislature, which was achieved when Senate Joint Resolution 2 was passed in January 2015. The measure titled Question 1 will appear on the ballot on April 7, 2015.
To serve on this court, a judge must be:
In the event of a midterm vacancy, the governor appoints a replacement. If the vacancy occurs between December 1 and the spring election, the appointee must stand for election the following spring. If the vacancy occurs earlier, judges stand for re-election during the next spring election in which no other justice or judge from their district is being elected.
In the general election on April 5, 2011, Justice David Prosser narrowly defeated court of appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, winning 50.19% of the vote. The winner was not certified until May 20, 2011, after the recount requested by the Kloppenburg campaign was completed.
Judge Michael Gableman defeated Justice Louis Butler in the spring election on April 1, 2008, after a hotly-contested campaign. The defeat of Butler was the first time since 1967 that a challenger defeated an incumbent supreme court justice for a seat on Wisconsin's highest court. Justice George Currie lost his bid for re-election after he allowed the Milwaukee Braves baseball team to relocate to Atlanta in 1967.
With the election of Gableman, it was the first time in 110 years there was not a justice from Milwaukee on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
On April 3, 2007, Washington County Circuit Court Judge Annette Ziegler soundly defeated Madison area immigration attorney Linda Clifford by a sizeable 2 to 1 margin, taking 65 out of Wisconsin's 72 counties including Milwaukee County. The race was a open seat due to the retirement of Jon Wilcox.
Voters in 2007 soundly rejected Clifford because she did not have any prior judicial experience, and her campaign ran negative advertising that attacked Ziegler. Clifford's campaign, however, railed when Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce ran attack ads aimed at her. In the end, Clifford lost but won her home county Dane County by nearly 30,000 votes.
Ziegler won in counties that played well for conservatives in the past, but also in more liberal counties, as well. Ziegler won in all the conservative strongholds including Green Bay, Appleton, Fond du Lac, and Oshkosh. She won by close margins in virtually every swing region including Kenosha, Racine, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Janesville, and Beloit. She also won Milwaukee County by over 10,000 votes.
Ziegler had a broad appeal with independent, conservative and moderate voters that helped in her victory, while Clifford was favored by more liberal voters.
The race drew controversy on two fronts. First, there were charges made by the Clifford campaign that Ziegler illegally presided over 56 cases involving West Bend Savings Bank. Zeigler's husband Todd served on the bank's board of directors. Also, third-party groups, like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, spent a huge amount of money on advertising. Business groups concerned about how recent rulings have affected the state's economic climate saw electing Ziegler as a way to preserve the court's makeup at the time. Their game plan worked later the next year in the 2008 supreme court election.
The high-stakes nature of the Ziegler-Clifford race helped the candidates raise a record-breaking $1.7 million by mid-March. Third parties threw unheard-of sums into television ads, mailings and automated phone calls. The race saw harsh ads from all sides.
After the election, the Wisconsin Judicial Commission heard complaints about Ziegler's involvement in cases, including West Bend Savings Bank. In May of 2008, the Wisconsin Judicial Commission publicly reprimanded Ziegler. While calling the misconduct "serious and significant" in a 60-page opinion, the high court nonetheless opted for the most lenient discipline available. The court could have imposed a suspension or expulsion from the bench, although both the Wisconsin Judicial Commission and a three-judge judicial conduct panel had recommended a reprimand. Groups including the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Common Cause and One Wisconsin Now criticized the commission's ruling as too lenient.
2007 Supreme Court Election Results
In 1997, Jon Wilcox won election handily over ACLU attorney Walt Kelley. However, after the election, Kelley filed a complaint with the former Wisconsin State Elections Board (now the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board) that alleged that Wilcox's campaign illegally coordinated last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts with the supposedly independent Wisconsin Citizens for Voter Participation. State law bans any coordination or cooperation between independent groups like the coalition and a candidate or candidate's campaign organization.
As part of the largest collective settlement of a case involving state campaign finance law violations, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox agreed to personally pay a $10,000 fine on behalf of his 1997 re-election campaign. Under the settlement, Wilcox's campaign manager Mark Block also agreed to pay a $15,000 fine and promised not to work as a consultant or volunteer on any campaign until 2004. The coalition's co-founder, former assembly Republican staffer Brent Pickens, agreed to pay a $35,000 fine and promised not to work on any campaigns for the next five years.
The settlement opened the door to suggestions by some that Wilcox should resign or be removed from the high court. One elections board member said Wilcox should, at the very least, sit out future cases involving the elections board.
- American Judicature Society, "Methods of Judicial Selection: Wisconsin," archived October 3, 2014
- Legislative Reference Bureau, "Constitutional Amendment Given "First Consideration" Approval by the 2013 Wisconsin Legislature," January 2015
- Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Walker's approach to the judiciary," September 21, 2013
- Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, Results of Spring General Election - 4/7/2009
- Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Gableman victorious," April 2, 2008
- Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, 2008 Spring Election Results
- WI Government Accountablity Board, "2007 Supreme Court Canvas Results," November 18, 2008
- WisPolitics, "2007 Supreme Court Election Blog," April 3, 2007
- Journal Sentinel, "Pricey court race might set new pace," April 6, 2007
- Journal-Sentinel, "Ziegler wins court seat," April 4, 2007
- Daily Reporter, "Elections Board cites Wilcox’s campaign manager, voter group," July 25, 2000