Judges discarded impartiality by signing recall petitions, say journalists who signed recall petitions

Gregg Re Editor
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A Gannett Media executive was red-faced this weekend after nine of her employees were caught doing exactly what their paper had exposed 29 circuit judges for doing: trying to bring down Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The Post-Crescent newspaper in Wisconsin posted a story earlier this month revealing that about 12 percent of Wisconsin’s county-level judiciary had signed a petition to recall the governor. That’s a problem because the trial-level judges are supposed to remain above the political fray.

Genia Lovett, the president and publisher of The Post-Crescent newspaper, called the story “watchdog journalism” at its finest.

But just days after the big article, Lovett admitted in an open letter that 25 supposedly unbiased Gannett Wisconsin Media employees, including nine at the Post-Crescent, also had signed recall petitions. Gannett Wisconsin Media owns the Post-Crescent newspaper.

“It was wrong, and those who signed were in breach of Gannett’s Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms,” Lovett wrote. “The principle at stake is our core belief that journalists must make every effort to avoid behavior that could raise doubts about their journalistic neutrality.”

Lovett, who is also a vice president for Gannett Wisconsin, consoled herself by noting that, while the news was “disheartening,” the investigative reporters who originally broke the story had nothing to do with the petitions.

“None of the employees serves on the investigative team, nor are any of the Appleton employees reporters or assigning news editors,” she wrote.

Lovett refused to name the employees, who appeared to see nothing wrong with their conduct.

“A number of the journalists told us they did not consider signing the petition a political act. They equated it to casting a ballot in an election, something they have every right to do,” Lovett said.

Lovett then somewhat ambiguously assured readers that those workers are now undergoing “supplemental ethics training.”

According to the official Gannett Media Blog, the Post-Crescent’s managing editor on Friday asked employees to not  “respond to any media requests or other communication you might receive from outside our office in relation to this matter.”

The judges, for their part, maintain that nothing they did violated the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct. But the Landmark Legal Foundation, which has filed a complaint, alleges otherwise.

The Code of Judicial Conduct requires that members of the bench “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all the judge’s activities. …  The test for appearance of impropriety is whether the conduct would create in reasonable minds a perception that the judge’s ability to carry out judicial responsibilities with integrity, impartiality and competence is impaired.”

Gov. Walker has been a target for liberals in Wisconsin because of his efforts to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees.

The Landmark Legal Foundation complaint said that the circuit judges’ behavior compromised their impartiality.

“This inherently political activity implies that these judges are endorsing, if not promoting, Governor Walker’s recall and calls into question the impartiality and judicial ethics of each signing circuit judge under the Code of Judicial Conduct,” reads the complaint, which is signed by the organization’s president, Mark Levin.

Levin had said on his nationally syndicated show Tuesday that he was “stunned” to hear about the judge’s behavior, according to USA Today.

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