Judge faces campaign scandal

  • Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson refuses to return campaign donations from lawyers whose cases are going before the court
  • Her opponent, Koschick, feels that Abrahamson should either return the funds or recuse herself.

Despite the demands of her opponent, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said at a formal debate last Tuesday that she will not return the campaign funds she received from lawyers who had upcoming cases before the court.

Abrahamson, who is running for re-election against Jefferson County Circuit Judge Randy Koschnick, received $30,000 from area lawyears. In one case alone lawyers donated $11,500. The large case is a malpractice suit, and the lawyers are fighting to keep a lower court's award of $990,000 in damages.

Abrahamson has raised more than $1 million total over the course of her campaign. Her opponent has raised roughly $53,000 since January.

While Abrahamson maintains she will remain impartial, Koschnick has his misgivings.

"There is one word for taking a contribution from a lawyer who has a case pending before you. It's wrong," Koschnick said at the Tuesday debate, reported Jack Zemlicka of the Wisconsin Law Journal.

Abrahamson and her campaign has challenged this position, however, saying the contributions won't affect the way she judges cases.

"The ability to make contributions is a part of our democracy," Abrahamson's campaign manager, Heather Colburn, said.

Colburn said Abrahamson doesn't take contributions into account when she makes decisions in cases.

She said, while it's easy to say Abrahamson should remove herself from the case, the contributions in question are only small parts of her overall budget, and recusing herself would set a precedent that could lead to some troubling consequences.

"There's a game that can be played," Colburn said. "If you wanted a judge off a case, all you would have to do is donate to their campaign and they would have to recuse themselves. Contributions alone do not merit recusal."

But Koschnick's campaign adviser, Seamus Flaherty, said that reasoning is faulty.

"Recusal wouldn't be the only option," said Flaherty, who suggested that Abrahamson should just return the funds if she doesn't want to withdraw from the case.

Flaherty also said Abrahamson's own logic works against her.

"If those contributions are only a minimal part of her contribution, that's all the more reason to return them," Flaherty said.

Janet Boles, a professor in the political science department, said she doesn't think the donations will have an impact on Abrahamson's judgment or her campaign.

"The donations in question are really miniscule," Boles said.

Boles said she believes Abrahamson's history should indicate that the funds will not influence her decision.

"She has a reputation of incredible even-handedness," Boles said.

Boles has been interested in Abrahamson since before starting at Marquette in 1980. One of Boles' specialties is women in politics.

"She's considered an innovator in protecting civil liberties via state constitutions, which have much stronger bills of rights," Boles said.

Boles also said Abrahamson supports public financing, and dissented with a recent decision by the Supreme Court that now allows judges to identify themselves with a political party and directly ask anyone, including attorneys, for contributions.

Rather, Boles said, Abrahamson will continue to receive all her donations through third parties, as she has done in the past.