In The News
Ziegler's judicial ethics emerge as key issue in Supreme Court race
Editor's Note: This story was posted February 26. On March 6, the Milwaukee Journal headlined a key aspect of this story: Annette Ziegler's violation of state judicial ethics in handling cases involving a bank her husband, J. J. Ziegler, helps run.
By Dominique Paul Noth
Milwaukee Labor Press
Both sides agree on one thing in the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court – Annette Ziegler should be closely questioned on her record as a Washington County Circuit Court judge.
The issue ads from the outside groups supporting her campaign – including a secretive right-wing group, Club for Growth, and the traditional Wisconsin funding sources for Republican candidates, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce – encourage supporters to call Ziegler about her experience as a county judge. So they regard that record as a plus despite the three-decade record of her opponent, Madison attorney Linda Clifford, in handling appellate cases and the intellectual issues the Supreme Court primarily deals with.
To Clifford’s supporters, including the Milwaukee County Labor Council, what really warrants public scrutiny are Ziegler’s lapses as a judge and her seeming indifference on the bench to ethical separation from her business interests.
Most judges would know in a flash to stay far away from a case against a corporation in which they hold as much as $100,000 in stock. But this year it took five weeks – and public questioning – for Ziegler to recuse herself from further judicial involvement in a lawsuit against Wal-Mart -- filed by a conservative citizens group, no less -- over the retailer’s plans for a Hartford Supercenter.
Ziegler’s required state filing of economic interests reveals she holds considerable stock in both Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart of Mexico.
Similarly, court watchers reveal, she handled at least 45 cases involving West Bend Savings Bank though her husband serves on the board of directors and though she lists the bank in the state form as customer, client or tenant.
While the Supreme Court is mainly about constitutional balance and legislative and regulatory decisions, the concerns about Ziegler also extend to her “law and order” sensibilities.
Since 1999, newspaper columnists and reporters for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other publications have raised sharp questions about her judgment. The most prominent case was when she stayed a sentence -- and only under public reaction changed it to a year in jail -- for a stepfather convicted of constant molestation of his stepdaughter from the time she was 10 years old. Ziegler’s sentence was one-twentieth what was recommended by the prosecutor and just one-fifth of what even the stepfather’s own defense attorney suggested.
“This is not a track record that can comfort anyone, regardless of political ideology,” noted Sheila D. Cochran, secretary-treasurer and chief operating officer for the Milwaukee County Labor Council.
“Judges should have heightened ethical conscience and should reflect compassion for victims of crime. Ziegler’s documented activities raise deep concerns about her judicial objectivity.”
“We need justices who rise above supporters and their personal predilections and business interests to address the crucial issues the top court faces – constitutional freedoms, civil liberties, fundamental fairness and measured analysis of legislative and regulatory intentions.”
The Supreme Court race is nonpartisan, Cochran noted, though it inevitably draws candidates who have expressed political preferences in the past. Clifford, a lifelong Democrat, receives bipartisan backing – from business groups and past governors of both parties. She has demonstrated objective standards and disciplined ethical behavior.
Ziegler has made similar pledges, “but her behavior on the bench and her methods in this campaign don’t square with that,” said Cochran.
Ziegler’s most prominent campaign mailing used former Republican lieutenant governor Margaret Farrow to revive GOP rhetoric and attack Clifford as a tool of “liberal special interests,” a letter Clifford labeled as adolescent and added, “"Let's leave the name-calling to the sandbox."
Clifford has urged Ziegler to adopt a “real campaign pledge” to avoid partisan demagoguery and repudiate third-party ads that smack of a political agenda.
She cited the involvement of hundreds of thousands of dollars in election activity by the Club for Growth, an unusual participant in a Wisconsin judicial campaign. The private group of 40,000 conservatives, many well-heeled financiers, is particularly notorious for backing rabid conservatives against moderate Republicans. Its founder has called for the abolishment of the US departments of education, commerce, labor and agriculture and labeled senior citizens “the most selfish group in America” for supporting Social Security.
The Ziegler family created one of Wisconsin’s most successful investment firms and has been deeply involved for decades in state Republican Party leadership. It gave money to Gov. Tommy Thompson’s campaign ($5,800 right before and $7,250 right after) when he appointed Ziegler to the Washington County circuit court in 1997, according to campaign reports.
Yet Ziegler has taken no active measures to reassure the public about the inherent conflict between her business interests, her political connections and her role as a judge.
These are hardly academic issues. Ziegler’s $2.7 million portfolio includes hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in oil companies, drug companies, financial institutions and other corporations. These are companies that are threatening to legally challenge (with the Supreme Court as final arbiter) paying for state budget initiatives in infrastructure, health care and environmental and consumer protection.