A special task force of attorneys recommends limiting Wisconsin Supreme Court justices to a single 16-year term, a move it says could help restore public confidence in a court beset by increasingly confrontational political campaigns.
The state Bar of Wisconsin panel said it would like to see a constitutional amendment introduced this fall to change the system, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Currently there's no limit to the number of 10-year terms a justice can seek.
"The campaigns have become so brutal," said Joe Troy, a former circuit judge whose 18-month study resulted in the proposal. "The sitting justice is attacked and demeaned, and the challenger is attacked and demeaned. The public sees that and thinks we must not have very good justices."
A term limit wouldn't solve everything, including the rising tide of money that has been pouring into campaigns, Troy said. But it would help restore public trust in the system, he added.
"No justice, once elected, would ever be elected again," Troy said. "The perception that they are there serving the people (with money) who put them there, or they are worried about the next election, that's just not going to happen."
A constitutional amendment requires passage in two consecutive Legislatures and approval from voters.
Troy said political leaders from both parties objected to an earlier plan in which justices would be appointed, but they've shown a willingness to consider term limits.
Democratic senate Minority Leader Chris Larson called the idea promising. Gov. Scott Walker and other Republican leaders weren't available for comment late Friday.
Wisconsin Supreme Court justices have been widely criticized in recent years for alleged ethical lapses and interpersonal squabbling.
In the most high-profile case, Justice David Prosser put his hands on the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley after he says she aggressively approached him during an argument.
Justice Michael Gableman was accused of violating an ethics rule by running campaign ads that clearly distorted his opponent's record. He was later criticized after he accepted free legal services from a law firm and then failed to recuse himself from cases involving the firm.
Janine Geske, a former Supreme Court Justice, said term limits could be a good start to repairing the court's reputation. She said the process of campaigning leaves voters with an inaccurate view of the court.
"My concern is the vast amount of money that is being spent and the way it's being spent on ads that aren't relevant to the duties and responsibilities of the job," said Geske, a Marquette University law professor. "They take one opinion out of a justice's whole career and that becomes the total issue in the campaign. This proposal would diminish that."
The intense negativity of election campaigns might continue unless campaign finance laws are changed, but at least imposing a one-term limit would mean fewer campaigns and no re-elections, Troy said.
Tom Shriner, a member of the state bar committee, said term limits might also encourage better candidates to run.
"You would attract candidates who would say, 'I'll put myself and my family through that once, and try to make a mark as a member of the court, and then do something else,'" Shriner said.
Troy said he'll ask the state bar's governing board to endorse the plan before the panel seeks support from lawmakers and others.