Conflict of interest may have played a role in one justice's decision-makingDane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed a motion with the State Supreme Court this week to contest the legality and implementation of Act 10, putting into doubt whether the law ending collective bargaining rights for state workers was done so legitimately.
The law had been argued before the court last year, when the conservative bloc of justices, in a convoluted decision, ruled that open meetings were subject to the rules that lawmaking bodies placed on them, and as such only those bodies (and not the courts) should decide whether or not the law was broken. In short, the conservative bloc of the court rendered longstanding and respected open meetings law as insignificant, more of a mission statement than any type of legal policy.
But new evidence in the case suggests a conflict of interest in that ruling. Justice Michael Gableman, one of the conservatives on the court, received free legal services from the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich, a strong violation of judicial ethics standards (ironically, these services came about during an ethics investigation against Gableman). Receiving such services, free of charge, can put into doubt any ruling a judge or justice makes in the future, especially in cases where those lawyers are principal litigants.
As it turns out, Michael Best & Friedrich WAS involved in the case that the court heard regarding the illegal passage of Act 10. Gableman in effect cast the deciding vote in favor of their position, overruling a lower court's previous decision that found the legislature passed the bill unlawfully.
Was Gableman's ruling based on the flawed reasoning that became the majority opinion, or did he rule based on the fact that he owed the petitioners of the case a favor? It's hard to imagine the conservative Gableman coming to any other decision than he had. Yet, basic judicial norms dictate that Gableman's actions violated the public's trust in him, that he acted in bad faith by refusing to recuse himself from the case that involved a law firm that he was essentially indebted to.
Ozanne's decision to appeal the court's decision based on these grounds is the right one to make. The people of Wisconsin deserve a judiciary that will rule impartially and without bias, something they may not have gotten the first time around. Gableman should step aside, and the State Supreme Court should rehear the case.