The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported and commented on Wednesday on an administrative decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court to reduce payments to reserve judges who attend education courses.
The paper’s coverage omitted key facts. Without a shred of actual evidence, the paper egregiously portrayed the Court’s decision as retaliation against reserve judges who have urged the Court to adopt certain recusal rules.
The paper’s headline regarding the Court’s action read, “Wisconsin Supreme Court cuts stipends for judges who asked for tougher conflict standards.” The article itself began, “Wisconsin’s Supreme Court abruptly cut stipends this month for reserve judges, reducing compensation for a group that tried to get the high court to strengthen its conflict-of-interest rules.”
Within hours of the article’s publication, an editorial columnist sarcastically wrote that a ”tribunal of sober, impartial above-the-political-fray jurists quietly and behind closed doors voted 5-2 to take a whack at a group that dared to suggest the court’s rules were too lax.”
Thus, the paper leaves no doubt in its readers’ minds that a majority of the state’s highest court has behaved unethically.
Here are the facts readers did not receive.
The new Director of State Courts, who assumed his position August 1, made the recommendation to Chief Justice Patience “Pat” Roggensack to reduce the continuing education payments. He did so in response to a directive from the Chief Justice to examine expenditures and propose savings. He likely will be making more recommendations.
The Director’s proposal was based in part on a unanimous vote by the committee of chief judges. That vote occurred in 2014. As the Chief Justice at the time, Justice Shirley Abrahamson, did not inform other members of the Court of the unanimous recommendation, the Court as a whole was unaware of it. The new Director of State Courts learned of the unanimous vote when reviewing court records.
The payment in question is a $454 per diem that reserve judges receive in addition to travel, lodging, and meal expenses. The judges will continue to receive expense reimbursement. They will incur no out-of-pocket costs for attending the education courses. When a reserve judge does perform judicial duties, he or she is paid $454 per day plus all expenses.
The Director’s review identified 37 judges who had received thousands of dollars in per diem payments for attending judicial education meetings but did not perform the duties of a reserve judge for even one day during the entire year. The current Chief Justice viewed such payments as wasteful, and therefore she brought the issue to the court for consideration.
There are 113 former judges, appointed by the Chief Justice, who serve as reserve judges. Contrary to the impression created by the Journal Sentinel headline, story, and commentary, a majority did not sign the rules petition asking for different recusal rules and an amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution. Still another group of reserve judges filed a response urging the court to deny the petition filed by the minority of reserve judges. In other words, a minority of reserve judges signed the petition.
Abrahamson, in her continuing campaign to discredit the court because she no longer is Chief Justice, suggests the Court’s decision was “retaliatory.” Retaliatory against whom? The reserve judges who opposed the recusal petition? The majority of reserve judges who took no stand one way or the other?
Notably, Abrahamson’s dissent does not explain why she did not inform the Court of the unanimous 2014 recommendation of chief judges to end the $454 payment.
In summary, the Journal Sentinel’s aspersions as to the motives of the Court’s majority are unfounded. The paper’s woefully incomplete coverage of the issue does its readers a distinct disservice.