MADISON – If you’ve watched the television quiz show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” you know the answer for some contestants is “no.” That’s how a lot of Wisconsin citizens may feel as they consider voting in the April 3 election for state Supreme Court.
It can be a bit intimidating to think about choosing one Supreme Court candidate over the other. After all, most of us aren’t lawyers or even had much contact with the legal system, except to pay the occasional traffic fine. And even if we’re roughly familiar with how the municipal courts or the circuit courts work, we’re not all that sure what the appeals courts do.
In fact, a recent statewide poll commissioned by the Federalist Society showed that most Wisconsin voters don’t know how many justices sit on the Supreme Court (it’s seven), nor can most name a single member. Fortunately, this election offers a chance to learn more – and your fellow citizens will help.
A live debate between Supreme Court candidates Linda Clifford and Annette Ziegler will be broadcast 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, March 30, on Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio. It will be rebroadcast on many other channels before the April 3 election. The forum is being produced by “We the People/Wisconsin,” a 15-year-old civic journalism project that has aired six previous Supreme Court forums since 1995 – with citizen questioners always being at the center of the action.
During the broadcast, Clifford and Ziegler will respond to questions from ordinary voters – rather than legal experts – who will gather to decide what questions will best reveal the differences between the candidates. The forum will be moderated, of course, but the format revolves around hearing what’s on the minds of likely voters.
While the average 5th grader might have many of us beat on actual knowledge of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, most of us support the tradition of electing justices. The Federalist Society poll revealed that 71 percent support electing judges and 67 percent favor keeping the elections non-partisan, meaning no candidate runs under a party label.
Wisconsin is one of just 22 states with an elected judiciary. In another 16 states, judges are appointed, but voters get to decide whether they should be retained. In the remaining 12 states, judges are selected by governors or legislatures, and voters have no direct say in the process.
This election is important for several reasons. First, the winner serves a 10-year term. That’s an eternity compared to most other public offices. Second, the winner may be the tie-breaking vote on a number of cases. That’s because three incumbent justices often write similar opinions and three others often take a different view. Third, this particular race has been characterized as a lot more partisan than not. Ziegler is generally seen as being backed by Republicans supporters; Clifford by Democrats. The money being invested in the candidates’ advertising campaigns reflects that.
It falls to voters to decide which candidate – veteran attorney Clifford or circuit court judge Ziegler – is best prepared to become that “swing” vote on the court. Remember: The primary function of the Supreme Court is to ensure independent, open, fair and efficient resolution of disputes in accordance with the federal and state constitutions and laws. As Wisconsin’s court of “last resort,” the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over all Wisconsin courts and has discretion to determine which appeals it will hear. That power is not to be taken lightly by the justices themselves – or the citizens who elect them.
Tune in March 30 to see what questions are asked by other voters such as you. Who knows? At the end of the broadcast, we might all be smarter than a 5th grader when it comes to understanding Wisconsin’s system of dispensing justice.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is a founding member of We the People/Wisconsin, a news media coalition that includes print, broadcast and online partners. Visit www.wtpeople.com to learn more.