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Clarence Thomas, Recusal, and Wisconsin

Posted by Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a
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on Thursday, 31 March 2022
in Wisconsin

clarence-thomas-scotus-justiceWife's involvement leaves no way Clarence Thomas can be a neutral arbiter in any future Jan. 6 cases says Executive Director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

MADISON - If he doesn’t resign, as Rep. Alexander Ocasio Cortez has properly asked him to, Justice Clarence Thomas at least needs to recuse himself from any cases dealing with the Jan. 6 uprising.

And he sure should have recused himself when he was the lone dissenter in a case earlier this year about the release of Donald Trump’s records relating to Jan. 6.

clarence-thomas-and-wife-virginia-nprBecause Thomas’s wife Ginni not only attended the “Stop the Steal” rally. She also sent a couple dozen text messages to Trump’s chief of staff urging him to do whatever it takes to keep Trump in power. Her texts were part of Trump’s records that were of issue in the case. Thomas had a clear conflict of interest, and he violated judicial ethics by sitting on the case and actually ruling in favor of Trump, thus shielding his wife.

There’s absolutely no way Clarence Thomas can be a neutral arbiter in any future Jan. 6 cases.

Thomas’s flagrant conflict of interest reminds me that here in Wisconsin, we need better recusal rules for judges and justices, too.

This matter has come up several times over the last dozen years. First, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin in 2010 petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to tighten its recusal rules. Instead of doing so, the conservative justices on the court chose to accept a rule, written by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which is essentially no rule at all. It says it’s totally up to the judge or justice whether to get off a case or not.

In 2015, in the John Doe II case against Scott Walker, the issue arose again. The special prosecutor was investigating whether Walker had broken the law by coordinating with outside electioneering groups during a campaign. Two of those groups were Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and Wisconsin Club for Growth. The special prosecutor asked two of the justices – David Prosser and a guy named Michael Gableman – to recuse themselves because they had benefitted from vast expenditures by those groups when they were running for office -- to the tune of $1.6 million to help elect Prosser and $2.26 million to help elect Gableman. But neither recused themselves. Instead, they sat on the case, ruled in favor of Walker, fired the special prosecutor, and shut down the investigation.

Then, in 2017, 54 retired judges in Wisconsin urged the Wisconsin Supreme Court again to tighten its recusal rules. The petition states: “As money in elections becomes more predominant, citizens rightfully ask whether justice is for sale. The appearance of partiality that large campaign donations cause strikes at the heart of the judicial function, which depends on the public’s respect for its judgments.”

The conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected this petition, as well. Justice Rebecca Bradley claimed that it was an offense to even imagine that judges could be so corrupted: “ Every judge in Wisconsin should be offended by this. It attacks their integrity and character,” she huffed.

Then-Justice Shirley Abrahamson rebutted this naïve claim: “Due process requires recusal if there is an actual conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Abrahamson noted.

But to no avail.

matt-rothschildSo today in Wisconsin, just as on the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s up to the judge or justice to decide for himself or herself.

And there’s no transparency here, either.

Things are so lax in Wisconsin that that if I’m a lawyer in a case before a judge, I can give a check for $2,000 to that judge’s reelection campaign while he’s sitting on my case, and neither I nor the judge needs to inform the lawyer on the other side.

That’s an invitation to legalized judicial corruption.

And unlike Rebecca Bradley, I wouldn’t be surprised if some judges accept the invitation.

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Civil Conversations: The Key for Change

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 30 March 2022
in Wisconsin

wi-senate-swearing-inJeff Smith writes about the origin of his mobile office hours known as “Stop & Talks.” It’s always been important to be accessible to the people you are elected to serve and he's glad to be hosting more of Stop & Talks now that the weather is warming up!

BRUNSWICK, WI - It’s always been my top priority to be accessible to the people I was elected to serve. In my four years serving in the State Assembly in the 2000’s, I scheduled town hall listening sessions as often as I could. My office arranged listening sessions at town halls, libraries and other public spaces during times that were open in my schedule, which often meant during the work day.

Occasionally a constituent would come in and share his or her thoughts, but it was quiet for the most part. More often I would sit alone inside a building and out of sight; it made me wonder if there was a better way to connect with the people I was elected to serve. I brainstormed for a while and realized curbside listening sessions worked better for everyone on the move. (This was way before curbside became a thing during the pandemic).

I got to work on the plan. I still had my old Dodge pickup that I used for my small business. All I needed was a sign for my neighbors to know that I was there, ready to listen. And that’s just how my Stop & Talks got started.

The 2011 redistricting process radically changed the makeup of the district. Having lost the Assembly seat and faced with a nearly all-new gerrymandered district I had one more reason to rethink how I interacted with folks and made myself available to my community.

Over the years, I was still unable to break through the heavily gerrymandered district and be re-elected to the Assembly, but my Stop & Talks were well received and appreciated by all those who stopped by. My only regret when I first started this method of connecting with voters was that I hadn’t had the opportunity to conduct these mobile office hours when I was an elected representative.

Now, as the elected State Senator representing the 31st Senate District covering all or most of Eau Claire, Dunn, Pepin, Pierce, Buffalo, Trempealeau and Jackson counties, it has been my pleasure to park my pickup at busy locations where constituents can easily find me, prop up my sign and have conversations with my constituents. In our northern climate, it’s obviously a seasonal activity and the pandemic caused me to shut it down for too long but I’m excited to be back at it again.

jeff-smithI’ve been part of some incredible conversations over the years. It’s a privilege to have people feel they can open up to me on the side of the road. There have been tears and hugs and occasionally some tough conversations.

What the “Stop and Talk” has taught me is that we’re not naturally good listeners. I’m constantly reminding myself to begin the conversation by listening and wait for the moment when the person talking might expect a response. Having these conversations, I think, really helps the new friends I make, as well as myself. Everyone who’s stopped has contributed to my own personal growth and has made me a better public servant.

It’s important for me to be approachable and that’s why my Stop & Talks work. I think it’s made some people, who might otherwise be uncomfortable in a more formal setting, willing to approach their state senator with their thoughts.

We are more alike than we appear to be—Wisconsinites want much of the same things. Economic and physical security, educational opportunity for our children, clean drinking water, affordable housing, living wages, accessible and affordable healthcare, and a life that allows time to enjoy what this beautiful state has to offer.

Once we actually have respectful conversations like I have on the side of the road, we can make progress toward understanding each other. This opens the door for the prospect that we can work together and preserve the freedoms that our great democratic republic was created to offer.

I hope to visit with you soon. Stop and talk.

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National Agriculture Week: Recognize the Farmers Who Feed You

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 23 March 2022
in Wisconsin

farm-familySen. Jeff Smith writes about farmers’ contributions to our state and how the legislature must support them.

BRUNSWICK, WI - The distinction of my hometown as the center of the dairy industry was always a matter of pride for me growing up. While I didn’t understand how milk pricing worked yet, all that mattered was that Eau Claire was the center of the milk industry and played a big role in determining the price of milk.

The ‘Eau Claire Rule’ was established as part of the New Deal in 1937. Since we were America’s Dairyland it made sense that the further you were from Eau Claire, the more you paid for milk. However, the eventual establishment of huge corporate farms in southern and western states allowed them to charge more for their milk. It wasn’t until 1997 that a federal judge agreed with farmers that the rule depressed prices in the Midwest while raising prices for farmers elsewhere, and the rule was abandoned.

I tell that story, not because of an unfair rule, but because being America’s Dairyland is still something to be proud of. Dairy products from Wisconsin are the envy of the world. We may take it for granted, but Wisconsin cheese is a special delicacy you can’t find anywhere else.

It would seem obvious that a top responsibility of the state legislature would be to support an industry that’s treasured throughout the agricultural world. Yet, politicians have watched from the sideline as we lose hundreds of dairy farms. In 1978 nearly 48,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin each milked an average of 65 cows. There are now about 6,500 dairy farms milking an average of 200 cows.

There are many reasons Wisconsin is losing our dairy farms, including aging farmers and their children choosing other paths to follow. But we’ve also ignored the need for policies that protect and encourage dairy producers to thrive in Wisconsin.

A prime example of this legislative dysfunction is the inability to do something as simple as pass dairy labeling bills. Session after session, a bill that would define milk as coming from a mammal rather than a plant, stalls in the legislature. I imagine if you were to ask some legislators they might say “we ran out of time.” Hogwash, I say.

When majority party leaders want something that will make the headlines, they pass it so fast your head will spin. No, the real reason the milk labeling bills are in limbo is because they politicians failed to prioritize our farmers in America’s Dairyland.

jeff-smithI’ve heard directly from farmers about the everyday challenges they face. During National Agriculture Week we must commit ourselves to policies that will support our farmers today and for generations to come.

Too many farmers need to work off the farm just so they can have health insurance, for instance. Smart legislation to make healthcare more affordable for Wisconsinites, like Medicaid expansion, would be huge for farmers.

Dairy farmers, in particular, depend on migrant labor. Creating a driver permit for migrant workers would help our farmers and make our roads safer.

Climate change has affected farmers in negative ways because of increased flooding and warmer temperatures. That’s why cover crop rebates, flood resiliency and more support from UW Extension agents is necessary in the ag world today.

In today’s world, being connected is critical to success. That’s why bills like mine to run fiber to every farm and every household in Wisconsin matters. If we want the next generation to work and live in rural Wisconsin, they must have reliable, high-speed internet. Who wouldn’t want to live where they can enjoy the beauty of Wisconsin—if only they could thrive here?

There are a lot more farmers among us than we realize. Simple policy fixes can have dramatic effects for farmers. These ideas are examples of bills that were offered this legislative session, but ignored or forgotten by the majority party.

Our farmers are there for us each and every day. We need to support them just as much as they support us. Farmers put food on our tables. What better way can we say ‘thank you’ than to take simple steps for our hardworking farmers?

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A Rural Blueprint for Our Future

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 16 March 2022
in Wisconsin

farmer-wicornSen. Jeff Smith writes about his Rural Development Plan, a comprehensive package of legislation designed to create opportunities for our rural communities.

EAU CLAIRE, WI - Thirty-six years ago, my wife and I built our home from the ground up in Brunswick, a rural part of Eau Claire County. We both grew up in the area and didn’t think twice about leaving. Before we started laying the foundation of our home, we started with a blueprint showing how to achieve our dream home. Months went by and our vision became reality.

The hard work that went into our home was well worth it. Our home became my office where I grew my business. It’s where my wife and I rested after we put in a hard day’s work. It’s where we raised our two daughters and built our future together.

As senator, I’ve been working on another type of blueprint—and it’s one for Wisconsin’s future. For the last four years serving the 31st Senate District, I’ve listened and learned about ways to make rural Wisconsin thrive.

I’m proud today to unveil my Rural Development Plan. It’s a comprehensive package of legislation designed to create opportunities for our rural communities. Through statewide broadband expansion, workforce development initiatives and fair funding for our K-12 schools, we can make rural Wisconsin a place where families and businesses want to call home.

5gGovernor Evers has already shown us what’s possible for Wisconsin. During his first term, the governor championed broadband expansion, creating a Broadband Access Task Force and making the largest broadband investment in state history during the ‘Year of Broadband Access.’ The governor restored two-thirds funding for our local schools and targeted support to address regional workforce challenges.

Despite the pandemic, Wisconsin has a record-high surplus, all-time low unemployment rate and our state’s general fund has the largest positive balance in state history. Governor Evers continues to build a strong economy that works for all Wisconsinites and my Rural Development Plan builds off the governor’s success.

We have the money and now’s the time to make the investments. In May 2021, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin estimated the full cost of broadband expansion to be between $700 Million and $1.4 Billion. Knowing this and the strong point our economy’s at now, we can make statewide broadband expansion happen.

Imagine how this could boost our communities, ensuring all homes and businesses in rural Wisconsin are connected to high-speed internet. It will connect our rural producers to urban consumers, enhance educational opportunities for students and help elderly residents stay in their homes.

My Rural Development Plan also includes five other bills to exponentially expand broadband and ensure every penny is spent wisely. These bills improve internet affordability, strengthen consumer protections and help farms get connected first.

The top priority I hear from constituents is broadband, but workforce development is a close second. My Rural Development Plan creates the Freedom to Learn program which offers free tuition for students enrolled at a technical college or at one of the two-year UW campuses. Even though we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, there’s still more we can do.

Student debt shouldn’t affect our ability to get skilled workers into the workplace—this proposal is a commonsense way to help Wisconsinites gain new skills and be more successful.

jeff-smithIt’s well known that our public schools are the heart of any community, especially in rural areas. Preserving rural America means preserving public education. For years, we’ve known the school funding formula is flawed. We’ve kicked the can down the road for too long. We have the money and we owe it to our kids to finally fix the problem. That’s why the Rural Development Plan uses Governor Tony Evers’ Fair Funding for Our Future plan to do the right thing for rural schools.

I put a lot of work into building my family’s home years ago and I’ve never regretted it. In western Wisconsin, we have something special: a welcoming community, strong work ethic and a beautiful landscape. Rural Wisconsin has much to offer. If we want to preserve our way of life while attracting and retaining future generations, we must make the investments today.

The blueprint is done—now it’s time to build.

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Let’s Draw the Line on Gerrymandering

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 09 March 2022
in Wisconsin

gerrymander-elections-redistrictingSen. Smith writes about the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision on redistricting. While reflecting on this decision, we must continue working to establish a nonpartisan redistricting process in Wisconsin.

MADISON - The maps are in! Political redistricting maps, that is. These are not the roadmaps you may be accustomed to. You won’t follow a redistricting map to get to your favorite vacation destination.

But, elected officials follow these maps to know the constituents they represent.  Some politicians design routes and create a map more advantageous to their party to get to their destination of power.

I probably don’t need to remind you, but every ten years congressional and legislative districts must be redrawn to adjust to population shifts. As simple and logical as that sounds, it’s become a tool used to hold onto power by those in charge. With new technologies and data collection programs on voting patterns, politicians are able to precisely manipulate district lines to favor themselves with ease.

Ten years ago after a wave election, Republicans took the majority of seats in the Senate and Assembly. They used that power to pass maps that notoriously became known as the most gerrymandered maps in the nation.

When democracy works as it’s designed to, voters are able to choose their leaders and shift political power at the ballot box. Between 2001 and 2011 voters were able to shift the legislative majority from one party to the other three times in five election cycles. After the last redistricting process in 2011, one party clung onto the legislative majority—without even a threat of changing hands—in all five cycles. Even when the statewide vote tallies favored Democrats, Republicans held onto nearly two-thirds of the legislative seats.

Last year, the Republican Majority rammed through another version of their maps. This time, however, Governor Evers was able to veto the maps, which allowed the courts to step in. The Wisconsin State Supreme Court chose to take the case.

wi-maps-2021The Supreme Court also adopted new guidelines created by Republican leaders to protect their gerrymander, the most egregious of which was the concept of “least change” from the current maps. Of course, if Republicans had followed “least change” ten years ago voters would’ve had fair elections the past decade.

The court requested different versions of redistricting maps be submitted to them by mid-December 2021, which included the Republican map and a handful of competing maps.

Last week we learned what maps would be used: the Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted the version submitted by Governor Evers. In the words of Justice Brian Hagedorn, “… we conclude the Governor's legislative maps comply with all relevant legal requirements. Because they are also the maps that produce the least change from the previously enacted maps, we adopt them.”

This decision doesn’t mean, though, that the decision to follow such a flawed directive as “least change” created a map that is fair to voters. On the contrary, it just meant that the map adopted by the court is the best that could be done while least changed from the radically corrupt map it started with. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote, “If this process has shown us anything, it is that the court should depart from the ‘least change’ approach if and when redistricting arrives before it in the decades to come.”

jeff-smithOne thing is clear: the process that allows politicians to draw political maps is problematic on many levels. That is why the vast majority of citizens agree that a process overseen by a nonpartisan commission is more favorable to the voters and less susceptible to corruption.

We must accept the court’s decision and begin the work of governing as best we can under these circumstances. It also means we’ll keep on working to introduce, listen, debate and adopt a nonpartisan redistricting process that works for you.

Our democratic republic only works if voters have confidence in those who govern. Our one opportunity to make our voices heard is through voting. Ask your elected officials if they are willing to give up the power to draw their own district. Their answer should be all you need to know about your elected officials.

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