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Did liberal Supreme Court Justice Dallet cross ethical line?

Empower Wisconsin | Sept. 20, 2019

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet was right at home on Feb. 26, addressing the progressive Wisconsin Justice Initiative.

Dallet, elected to the court a year before, was slated to offer “insights and reflections regarding her campaign and first several months on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

The bold notice didn’t describe the event as a fundraiser for the criminal justice reform group, but at $60 a pop the cost of admission paid for more than the wine, soda and “light appetizers.”

“Learn what Wisconsin Justice Initiative is doing to advocate for serious reforms and to educate the public about Wisconsin’s justice system,” the a web advertisement states.

There’s no law against judges soliciting, endorsing or encouraging membership for such organizations, liberal, conservative or nondenominational, according to Wisconsin statutes on judicial conduct.

But there is a clear line in the area of fundraising. Solicitation cannot “reasonably be perceived as coercive” and it cannot essentially be a “fund-raising mechanism.”

By all appearances, the advertised Wisconsin Justice Initiative event served as a fundraiser.

Empower Wisconsin attempted to ask the organization’s executive director about the event and more about Justice Dallet’s discussion, but she curtly said, “I don’t know you. Thanks for calling,” and hung up.

State law does offer allowances for judges who appear at fund-raising events.

“A judge may be a speaker or guest of honor at an organization’s fund-raising event provided there is no advertising of the judge as speaker or guest of honor in order to encourage people to attend and make contributions and provided that any contributions at the event are made prior to the judge’s speech or presentation as guest of honor.”

Wisconsin Justice Initiative certainly wanted to get the word out, and a Supreme Court justice as featured speaker would be a huge draw. The group promoted the event and the featured speaker on its website.

Did Justice Dallet cross the line?

The Wisconsin Judicial Commission won’t say. An official there pointed Empower Wisconsin to state statutes.

A spokesman for the Supreme Court said, “I don’t know,” when asked the same question.

A message to Justice Dallet was not returned Thursday.

If the past is any indicator, little would come of any complaint – and it would be a long time before the Judicial Commission handed down its verdict. It took a year before the commission responded to the Wisconsin GOP’s complaint accusing Dallet of taking campaign contributions from attorneys who appeared before her in court, when she was a Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge. In March, the commission informed the GOP that it was going to evaluate the claims further. Eventually, the commission dismissed the complaint altogether, according to the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

Justice Dallet solicited contributions from attorneys within one week of their cases being assigned to her court, according to the RPW complaint. The party found eight examples in which Dallet solicited contributions within two weeks of attorneys assigned to cases in the court.

A commission official would not comment on how the panel arrived at its decision.

The judicial commission also dismissed a complaint filed against Dallet by the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Issues Mobilization Council. WMC’s issue advocacy arm alleged Dallet’s 2018 campaign engaged in multiple incidents of false, misleading advertising, in violation of the judicial code of conduct. 

The dismissal followed several commissioner recusals. A single commissioner eventually decided the complaint’s fate. 

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