Although the results of the April 5th Wisconsin Supreme Court election have still not been certified, the situation in Wisconsin provides many cautionary lessons for those who seek to reform Michigan’s system of judicial elections.

Many reform groups—including former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Betty Weaver—seek to impose public financing of judicial elections in Michigan.  Their theory is that publicly funded elections “take politics” out of judicial elections.  Those who wish to know whether that particular reform works need only look to Wisconsin to determine how naïve is the notion that restricting campaign financing of candidates removes the “politics” from judicial elections.  

In Wisconsin, there has been a titanic struggle over the Governor’s effort to rein in the cost of government.  His policy reforms were passed by the legislature.  Those who opposed these policies went immediately to challenge them in the courts.  The opponents also saw their chance completely to nullify those policies by seizing control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court by defeating conservative Justice Prosser.  His defeat and replacement by his challenger would have shifted the court’s majority from conservative to liberal.  Those opposing the Governor’s policy agenda dumped millions of dollars into the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in the waning weeks of the campaign to defeat Prosser.

While the “reform” regulations in Wisconsin severely limited the amount of money individual candidates like Prosser could spend on their own behalf, the independent third party groups were free to spent millions of dollars in trying to influence the election.  Thus, all the so-called Wisconsin “finance reforms” ended up achieving was making individual candidates powerless to respond to attacks by third party groups.

Here’s the reason why such all such reforms are silly:  The judiciary has seized control in America and has become a robust policy-making engine.  Picking who wears a black robe really matters

In such an environment, judicial selection is less about a lawyer’s credentials than deciding whether, as a judge, he will follow the rule law or not.  Ever since judges began misusing their institutional power to control the nation’s policy agenda, judicial selection has become an important question and political tool.  Thus, no “reform” is going to eliminate that political question or the incentive of political entities to try to affect judicial selection—however judicial selections are made.  

Especially now that the Michigan Supreme Court has returned to a majority of justices who follow the rule of law instead of their own personal policy preferences, discussions about “judicial reform” are going to become more robust in the coming months.  

As groups and individuals push their so-called reform agendas, Michigan citizens must ask themselves whether reformers are really seeking to stack the courts with judges who favor their own political agendas, rather than judges who will follow the rule of law.  Wisconsin’s recent Supreme Court campaign may provide some answers.

Maintaining the right to elect your judges is the only means to rein in those who have the power to deform your constitution and society.