From Circuit to Supreme, Courts Matter… A LOT

The entrance to the Wisconsin Supreme Court

Voters will fill an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the statewide spring election on April 4. Voters around the state will also cast ballots for judges running for seats on Circuit Courts and the Court of Appeals. From the state’s highest court down to the local level, courts impact our lives in a variety of ways.

“The whole court system matters to people with vision loss and other disabilities because such critical decisions that affect our lives are made in the court,” says Denise Jess, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired. “Health care, voting rights, employment, education, the list goes on,” she says.

Last month, the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition organized “Wisconsin Courts Matter,” an online forum on the importance of the upcoming judicial elections. One panelist, Civil Rights Attorney Monica Murphy, has argued cases in both lower courts and the State Supreme Court. She says everyone has a stake in how the law is shaped from the bench. “The reality is judges have a tremendous amount of power and a tremendous amount of say about things that are important in your lives,” Monica observed in the Coalition forum.

As an example, Monica pointed to a recent Supreme Court voting rights decision that struck down the legality of ballot boxes located off the premises of clerks’ offices. Arguments that the drop boxes are a convenience to people with disabilities were unsuccessful. Voters who are disabled often face challenges getting to the polls because of transportation barriers. The make-up of the court comes into clear focus in cases like this; the Wisconsin Supreme Court hears approximately 60 cases per year, and many of them are decided by the slimmest margin, one vote.

Yet in preparing to vote, it can be challenging to get to know the candidates running for court positions. “You don’t call up a justice and ask to meet with them,” says Denise Jess. “You can do that with a legislator, but not with a justice. Voting is the meeting.”

Janine Geske served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the 1990s. Now a law professor at Marquette University, Geske also participated in the “Wisconsin Courts Matter” virtual forum. She acknowledges the challenge of formulating a vote for a high court candidate. She says, however, that looking into their past decisions can reveal a lot. Reviewing past decisions can show if a judge is engaged and in touch with the people of Wisconsin or whether they appear to have a partisan political agenda.

“Have they been devoted to the community?” she asks. “As much as you can engage with candidates other than ads, I encourage people to do that,” Geske says.

The Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition, of which the Council is a core member, offers a useful toolkit for learning how to get to know judicial candidates. Among the tips for voters are:

  • Visit candidate websites.
  • Watch or listen to candidate forum broadcasts.
  • Determine the candidate’s judicial philosophy.

You can find many more tips in the Coalition’s Supreme Court Fact Sheet.

“It’s critical for us to understand how decisions are made in courts, who is making them, and then the importance of voting,” Denise says. “From the high court all the way down to the circuit court. Every one of those benches matter.”

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