Wisconsin earns ‘F’ for judicial financial disclosure

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The Center for Public Integrity evaluated the disclosure rules for judges in the highest state courts nationwide. The level of disclosure in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was poor, with 43 receiving failing grades, making it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench. Despite the lack of information in the public records, the Center’s investigation found nearly three dozen conflicts, questionable gifts and entanglements among top judges around the country. Here’s what the Center found in Wisconsin:

Strengths:

Despite its failing grade, Wisconsin scored better than many states and tied for 14th overall with Tennessee in the Center’s study. The state seeks information in each of the Center’s grading categories, including asking for disclosure of all gifts worth more than $50, an unusually low reporting threshold among the states. It also asks about commercial clients and tenants, along with business partners for any businesses owned by the judge’s family.

Weaknesses:

The state’s Supreme Court has become a poster child for ethical problems, with three of the sitting justices having faced ethical inquiries, including one for allegedly trying to choke another justice. The court has been sharply divided along political lines — an especially sticky issue when ethical issues emerge because the justices are involved with the discipline for such violations, even when their fellow justices are involved. For example, Justice Michael Gableman’s peers deadlocked 3-3 in a June 2010 vote to determine whether he had violated ethics rules with a campaign ad. Then last year, the court again deadlocked by the same margin on whether he could hear cases involving an attorney who provided him with free legal counsel during that 2010 ethics probe, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His financial interest forms do not disclose the free legal service. The state does ask for the value of judges’ investments and liabilities but only in broad ranges, from $5,000 to $50,000 or greater than $50,000. It requires real estate ownership to be disclosed only for properties owned within Wisconsin.

Highlights:

Justice Annette Ziegler reported owning more than $50,000 worth of both Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson stock in 2012, yet she took part in a decision involving the drug companies as defendants in a multi-party case in which the state accused pharmaceutical manufacturers of charging inflated drug prices to the state’s Medicaid system. Three other justices did not participate in the case.

This was not the first time Ziegler participated in case where she had a stake in one of the participants. The Wisconsin Judicial Commission sent her a warning letter about such conflicts in 2007 after the Wisconsin State Journal found she had presided in 22 cases, when she was a trial judge, involving companies in which she owned at least $50,000 in stock. At the time, she apologized.

In 2010, Ziegler also reported that her family owed more than $50,000 to Town Bank, yet she wrote an opinion in favor of the bank that year in a dispute over a commercial loan for a 22-story building in downtown Milwaukee. The bank is a Wisconsin-based community bank with just seven branches, according to the FDIC. Her husband, J.J. Ziegler, is a prominent commercial real estate developer who has served on the board of another community bank. Ziegler did not return multiple calls for comment.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley took part in a decision affirming a court of appeals ruling in Nestle USA Inc. v. Wisconsin Department of Revenue in 2011, despite reporting ownership of at least $5,000 worth of Nestle stock. The decision, though, went against the company, which had challenged a tax assessment of a powdered infant formula plant. The judge declined to comment.