Look around the country, and there’s ample evidence for Nebraskans to be pleased that their state Supreme Court is operating responsibly and free of the political rancor plaguing the high courts of many other states.
Here are just a few examples:
>> Wisconsin. The same ideological polarization that surfaced during that state’s rancorous debate over collective bargaining rights also infects the state’s high court. Wisconsin just had a statewide election for chief justice, and the contest was marked by tremendous partisan bitterness.
Ugly episodes of anger and recrimination among the members of the Wisconsin court have punctuated the court’s history in recent years. In one instance, a justice called the female chief justice a vulgar name. Worst of all was a bizarre 2011 incident — on the eve of the court’s decision in the collective bargaining dispute — where one justice is alleged to have put his hands on another justice’s neck during an argument in front of more justices. Two years have passed, and a legal proceeding on the matter remains stalled — because it’s before the Wisconsin Supreme Court itself and all but two of the justices have recused themselves from the case.
>> Pennsylvania. A member of that state’s high court recently resigned after being convicted of public corruption for using taxpayer-funded staffers in her two campaigns for the court.
Meanwhile, the current Pennsylvania chief justice is running in a 10-year retention election even though the state constitution says judges must retire at age 70. His present age: 69. If he’s re-elected and his status is legally challenged, the matter may wind up before — the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Four former Pennsylvania governors (two Republicans and two Democrats) have joined a campaign to replace that state’s partisan judicial elections with nonpartisan ones.
>> Others. In West Virginia, criticism of that state’s Supreme Court has arisen after it came to light that a coal company executive spent millions to help elect a justice who subsequently voted to overturn a $50 million verdict against his coal company. A similar situation has arisen in Illinois involving campaign donations by an insurance company.
In Nebraska, a look back at the Supreme Court’s history shows there have been controversies from time to time. For the most part, though, Nebraska’s high court has operated with levelheadedness and professionalism. In 2008, a study by the University of Chicago concluded that among the 50 state supreme courts, Nebraska’s stood as No. 10 in productivity, influence and independence.
Nebraska switched in the 1960s to choosing the members of the court through gubernatorial appointment followed by retention elections, and that approach has worked well. In 2006, the court had a positive, smooth transition when Chief Justice John Hendry retired and was succeeded through gubernatorial appointment by Mike Heavican.
The Nebraska Supreme Court is respected for its forward-thinking promotion and oversight on crucial issues including community corrections, court translators and juvenile services.
Nebraska is fortunate to have such strong leadership from the court and its staff on these matters and for the court’s sober-minded, collegial approach to cases. Nebraska’s Supreme Court should be encouraged to stay on its commendable path — one of sound, responsible leadership.