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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Annette Ziegler and Conflicts of Interest

by folkbum

Judge Annete Ziegler, running for Wisconsin's Supreme Court, has made a big deal of her experience on the bench, mostly playing up, as far as I can tell, a "tough on crime" stance that is not necessarily applicable for the job she wants (well, hey, it worked for JB Van Hollen). But it puts Ziegler's work on the bench on the table, which is good news for those of us who occasionally dig for dirt.

We already know that blog and activist scrutiny shamed her, late, into recusing herself from a case involving Wal*Mart, a company in which she owns a ton of stock. [UPDATE: Per comments below, her timing may not have been late at all on the Wal*Mart thing.] But there's more in the conflict-of-interest department.

Careful observers will note that Judge Ziegler filed the appropriate formage with the state to indicate that she might have a conflict when it comes to West Bend Savings Bank. For good reason: Her husband, JJ, is on the WBSB board, and has been since 2002.

Here's the kicker: Since 2002, Judge Ziegler has presided over nearly four dozen cases involving WBSB (just check). An intrepid correspondent of mine actually took a tour around the Washington County Courthouse and checked the casefiles on about a dozen of the most recent cases, and there was no evidence of notice given to the defendants in those cases of the possible conflict of interest. This, of course, leads to speculation that the three-dozen prior cases were also filed away without any mention of such notice.

Two questions: If Judge Ziegler had given notice to these defendants that her husband was on the West Bend Savings Bank's board, shouldn't that notice be somewhere in the case paperwork? And, two, even if, perhaps, she did notify the defendants--or if she assumed the defendants or their attorneys might by default check the state ethics website linked above to learn the news--why would these defendants accede to letting the case go forward under someone with such strong ties to the plantiffs? That's the sort of thing that suggests to me that the absence of a paper trail regarding that notification is probably representative of an absence of notice.

A further question: Why has it even come this far? In other words, should not Judge Ziegler have looked at the parties involved in these cases and without having to be asked recused herself because of the conflict of interest? I know that it took scrutiny before she did the right thing in the Wal*Mart case, and this is an issue that has gotten no scrutiny until now, but why should it take scrutiny at all? Shouldn't someone who thinks she's qualifed to sit on the state's highest court have a slightly greater sense of ethics, of right and wrong, than that?

Now, I know you may also be thinking that I'm relying too much on someone I've labeled "my intrepid correspondent." Fact is, this source has not yet steered my wrong in several years of providing me with information. Besides, the Washington County Courthouse records are public records, so you don't have to take my (or his) word for it. In fact, I would hope some enterprising reporter could take a drive over there and follow this story wherever it may lead, since it seems to raise a lot of uncomfortable questions for Ziegler about her conduct on the bench--conduct that she is using as the very basis for her campaign. It wouldn't be hard to contact the people who have lost these cases to West Bend Savings Bank, ask them how it feels to know that the woman who ruled against them is married to a member of the bank's board.

So, Judge Ziegler, what's the deal? What's the threshold for recusing yourself? What's the minimum it takes to inform the parties in front of you about a conflict? And how on earth can you stand on this record as qualifications for Wisconsin Supreme Court?

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