Siefert v. Alexander

Decision Date17 February 2009
Docket Number08-cv-126-bbc
Citation597 F. Supp. 2d 860
PartiesHONORABLE JOHN SIEFERT, Plaintiff, v. JAMES C. ALEXANDER, in his official capacity as the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission; GINGER ALDEN, in her official capacity as a Member of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission; DONALD LEO BACH, in his official capacity as a Member of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission; JOHN R. DAWSON, in his official capacity as a Member of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission; DAVID A. HANSHER, in his official capacity as a Member of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission; GREGORY A. PETERSON, in his official capacity as a Member of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission; WILLIAM VANDER LOOP, in his official capacity as a Member of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission; MICHAEL R. MILLER, in his official capacity as a Member of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission; JAMES M. HANEY, in his official capacity as a Member of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, Defendants.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

For Honorable John Siefert, Plaintiff: Anita Yvonne Woudenberg, James Bopp, Jr., Josiah Simpson Neeley, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Bopp, Coleson & Bostrom, Terre Haute, IN; Michael D. Dean, LEAD ATTORNEY, Michael D. Dean, LLC, Waukesha, WI.

For James C. Alexander, Ginger Alden, Donald Leo Bach, John R. Dawson, David A. Hansher, Gregory A. Peterson, William Vander Loop, Michael R. Miller, James M. Haney, Defendants: Jennifer Sloan Lattis, LEAD ATTORNEY, Wisconsin Department Of Justice, Madison, WI.

BARBARA B. CRABB, District Judge.

OPINION AND ORDER

A commitment to judicial independence and impartiality has long been viewed as one of the cornerstones of the American judiciary. Courts maintain their legitimacy only so long as those who walk through the courthouse doors believe that they are being treated fairly, that is, that the judge is deciding the case on the basis of his or her view of the law and facts and not on the basis of an outside influence or bias.

Just as central to American democracy is the belief in free expression and open government. Under the First Amendment, generally the view is that more rather than less information advances democratic values and that the government should not be the arbiter of which ideas are true or false, important or unimportant, helpful or harmful. Particularly in the context of popular elections, it is the people who decide through their votes which message resonates.

In the context of judicial elections, questions arise about the compatibility of these two fundamental values. Should a candidate's or judge's speech be limited to prevent him from making statements that could make him appear biased? If so, under what circumstances is such a restriction appropriate? How can the integrity of the judiciary be preserved without unduly inhibiting the conversation between a judicial candidate and the electorate? These difficult questions are at the heart of the dispute between the parties in this case.

Plaintiff John Siefert is an elected Wisconsin circuit court judge in Milwaukee County who would like to state his affiliation with the Democratic Party, endorse partisan candidates for office and personally solicit contributions for his next election campaign, but he fears violating provisions of the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct that prohibit these activities. Rather than violate the provisions and subject himself to discipline, plaintiff filed this suit for declaratory and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the members of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission responsible for enforcing the code, seeking a determination of his right to undertake the prohibited activities. Plaintiff says that the rules violate his right to free speech; defendants say that the rules are necessary to keep judges from being improperly influenced by partisan considerations, to maintain public confidence in the Wisconsin judiciary and to prevent potential donors from feeling coerced into giving money. The parties' cross motions for summary judgment are now ripe for review. (Wisconsin's attorney general invited the State Bar of Wisconsin to file an amicus brief, but it declined to do so. Dkt. # 47.)

Over the years, many states with elected judges and many bar associations, including the American Bar Association, have addressed what they see as factors working against the goal of maintaining an impartial judiciary. To that end, they have developed canons of judicial conduct, forbidding such activities by candidates for judicial office as announcing their views on disputed legal and political issues, making personal solicitations of funds or endorsements and engaging in partisan activities or even identifying themselves as members of a particular party. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled the first of these restrictions unconstitutional, holding that the First Amendment was violated when judicial candidates were prohibited from announcing their views on disputed issues likely to come before the court. Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765, 122 S. Ct. 2528, 153 L. Ed. 2d 694 (2002). In 2005, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that the First Amendment made unconstitutional bans against direct solicitation and the partisan activities of identifying oneself as a member of a political organization, attending political gatherings or accepting endorsements from a political organization. Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 416 F.3d 738 (8th Cir. 2005). These two cases have transformed the legal perspective from which the canons of judicial conduct are viewed.

Wisconsin is one of the states that has worked to maintain a judiciary that is perceived as impartial. Among the canons adopted by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin in pursuit of this goal are three that plaintiff is challenging in this suit. SCR 60.06(2)(b)(1) provides that no judge or judicial candidate may be a member of any political party. SCR 60.06(2)(b)(4) provides that no judge or judicial candidate may publicly endorse or speak on behalf of a political party's candidates or platforms. SCR 60.06(4) provides that a judge, candidate for judicial office, or judge-elect shall not personally solicit or accept campaign contributions.

Reviewing these canons in light of the Supreme Court's opinion in White (White I) and defendants' failure to show that any of the rules challenged by plaintiff is narrowly tailored to promote a compelling state interest, as required under the First Amendment, I must conclude that the rules at issue do not withstand strict scrutiny. This conclusion should not be viewed as denigrating the conscientious efforts made by the state supreme court and many lawyers over many years to draft canons that they believe are necessary to maintain a non-partisan judiciary. It may be that the job is impossible. Once a state decides, as Wisconsin has, that judges are to be democratically elected along with the members of the other two branches of government, the task of legislating nonpartisanship and the appearance of impartiality without violating the First Amendment becomes a thicket of complexity.

From the parties' proposed findings of fact, I find that the following facts are undisputed.

UNDISPUTED FACTS

Plaintiff John Siefert has been a judge of the Circuit Court for Milwaukee County since he was first elected in 1999. Defendant James Alexander is the executive director of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission; defendants Ginger Alden, Donald Leo Bach, John Dawson, David Hansher, Gregory Peterson, William Vander Loop, Michael Miller and James Haney are members of the commission.

The commission investigates and prosecutes potential violations of the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct, which regulates the behavior of judges and judicial candidates. In Wisconsin, state court judges are selected through nonpartisan elections, meaning that a judicial candidate is not nominated by a political party and no party affiliation appears next to the candidate's name on the ballot.

A. Plaintiff's Background

Before plaintiff was a circuit court judge, he had been a member of the Democratic Party and participated in a number of partisan activities, including . serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention;

. twice running as a Democrat for the state legislature;

. twice running as a Democrat for county treasurer; holding that office from 1990 to 1993;

. serving as an alternate elector for President Bill Clinton in 1992.

Plaintiff would like to join the Democratic Party again, endorse partisan candidates and personally solicit campaign contributions, but he fears that doing so will subject him to discipline for violating the code of judicial conduct. In particular, with respect to becoming a member of the Democratic Party, he would like to list his party membership in response to candidate questionnaires. (He does not seek to have his party affiliation listed on the ballot; such a listing is prohibited by Wis. Stat. §§ 5.58 and 5.60 and is not the subject of this suit.) He believes membership in the Democratic Party would communicate his desire for social justice and peace. He understands that voters may use party affiliation as a "shorthand" for many of his views, but he does not wish to appeal to partisanship as a candidate or as a judge.

With respect to endorsing partisan candidates, plaintiff wanted to endorse Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. In the future, plaintiff would like to endorse Jim Doyle for governor of Wisconsin in 2010 and President Obama if he decides to run for reelection in 2012.

With respect to fund raising, plaintiff would like to solicit contributions for his upcoming 2011 campaign and to pay off debts from his past campaigns by making phone calls to potential contributors, signing his name to fund-raising letters and by personally inviting potential donors to fund raising events. He does not challenge the need for a campaign...

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