Judges For Life?
I know that a number of people were surprised when long-serving Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Tom Wolfgram lost his re-election bid by a landslide.
Don't feel too bad for Judge Wolfgram though. In Wisconsin, once you're a judge, you're pretty much a judge for life - regardless of what those pesky voters say.
A relatively obscure provision of State law allows the Chief Justice of he Wisconsin Supreme Court to appoint what are known as "permanent reserve judges" and "temporary reserve judges". "Permanent reserve judges" can be appointed for unlimited 6 month terms and perform the same duties as regular judges (for the same pay and benefits). "Temporary reserve judges" operate the same way except their appointments are for lesser periods of time.
The purpose of this rule is to provide coverage when regular judges take vacations or become ill. Kind of like a substitute teacher.
Here's where it gets interesting though.
In Wisconsin, "any person who has served a total of 6 or more years as a supreme court justice, a court of appeals judge or a circuit judge" is eligible to serve as a reserve judge. Since a judicial term is 6 years, this rule effectively means that any judge who has been elected once is eligible to serve as a reserve judge for life.
Regardless of whether or not voters have tossed you out.
I know a lot of people who think Judge Wolfgram is a darn good judge who lost his re-election bid because of a moment of temporary political insanity. I don't necessarily disagree with this assessment. Still, he lost.
However, if appointed by the Chief Justice (which he undoubtedly will be if he chooses to apply), Judge Wolfgram can continue hearing cases indefinitely. Even in Ozaukee County.
Election results be damned.
Again, I hate to hold up Judge Wolfgram as the potential poster child for this awful rule. I'm not at all sure his defeat at the polls really said too much about his abilities as a judge.
Still, in Milwaukee County, at least one judge who was (deservedly in my opinion) tossed off the bench by the voters hung around for years collecting decent paydays. Make no mistake, the old boy (and girl) system takes care of it's own!
I appreciate that there is a need for reserve judges. To me though, the applicant pool should come from the ranks of retired judges - not defeated judges. In other words, if you lose a bid for re-election, you should be out.
If nothing else, a change in law might encourage some judges to make way for new blood instead of holding on beyond their reasonable shelf life.
Under the current law though, we've set up a system where judges are effectively judges for life - regardless of what the voters say!