Wisconsin Recall: Panel Clears Judges Who Signed Petitions

By Brendan O'Brien

MILWAUKEE, July 25 (Reuters) - Wisconsin state judges who were among nearly a million residents who signed petitions that triggered an unsuccessful recall election against Republican Governor Scott Walker did not breach their judicial obligations, a state ethics panel has found.

The Wisconsin Judicial Commission concluded the judges "had not otherwise acted in a manner that would reflect adversely on ... impartiality or the appearance of impartiality," according to a brief letter to the judges on June 26.

The Judicial Commission does not publicly disclose its rulings. It reviewed the applicable rules and concluded that the judges' activity in signing a petition was not prohibited, two judges who received the letter told Reuters.

The commission's probe into the matter was launched after the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative organization based in Virginia and headed by radio personality Mark Levin, filed a complaint on March 20.

Levin asked in a letter to the commission that a "full range of sanctions be considered for these egregious ethical violations, including as appropriate reprimand, censure, suspension and removal."

Landmark was not available for comment on the ruling.

According to Landmark, at least 29 judges signed petitions calling for the recall of Walker, who became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall when he defeated Democratic challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on June 5.

Democrats and labor organizations, angered over Walker's controversial changes to laws covering public sector unions, gathered 930,000 signatures to force the first-term governor into the special election.

"For me, the fact that this went to this point is reflecting how highly partisan and charged the political (climate) that we are in," said Brown County Circuit Court Judge Donald Zuidmulder, one of the judges who received the commission's letter.

The Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from being members of a political party or participating in political affairs or endorsements. It does not indicate whether signing a recall petition is an "inappropriate political activity."

"Although the rule contemplates the continuance of nonpartisanship on the part of Wisconsin judges and those seeking judicial office, judges are not expected to lead lives of seclusion," the code also says.

James Alexander, the executive director of the Judicial Commission, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Monroe County Circuit Court Judge David Rice, who also confirmed that he received the letter, said he asked Alexander if he would be in violation of any rules or provisions of the judicial code before he signed a petition.

"He told me that I would not be, so this basically confirms the advice that he gave me," Rice said. "I acted in my capacity as a private citizen and not as a judge."

Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and two Republican senators also survived recall elections in June. Six other Republican senators faced recall elections in the summer of 2011. In all, three Republican senators lost recall elections, resulting in a 17-16 Democratic majority in the state Senate.

Another state senator, Tim Cullen, said on Tuesday he was leaving the Democratic caucus, and would decide whether to become an independent. He said he would not join the Republican party, apparently leaving the state Senate evenly split. (Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Greg McCune and Paul Simao)

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