10.21.2009

Wisconsin: The Nanny State Ascendant

What a time in Dairyland.  The past two days seemed to give rise to a number of overreaching Wisconsin legislative measures tending toward greater state involvement in people's lives:

The State Senate passed an unfortunate measure, 27-5, that would ban texting while driving.  The activity involved is already potentially covered under state laws against disorderly driving.  And the penalties would be within the exact same range as the existing offense.  I don't see why the activity needs to be banned specifically - unless other individual behaviors done while driving that are just as distracting are banned individually.  I think the discretion to bring a disorderly driving charge is sufficient.  It also recognizes, to a better extent, that if some people can text while driving without any problems, then they won't necessarily be penalized purely for the act of texting while driving absent resultant harm.

That same body also passed a measure mandating that children under the age of 10 don life jackets in boats under 26 feet in length.  This is something that falls squarely within the responsibility of a child's parents, not the state.

Finally, Representative Mark Gottlieb, generally a thoughtful state legislator, introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would bring a system of merit-based selection to Wisconsin's Supreme Court, as opposed to the existing practice of electing justices.  While I'm interested in studying the measure more closely, I will say at the outset that the outline of Gottlieb's plan is troubling on the whole because it, like the measures above, doesn't treat individual members of the electorate as adults who can make decisions.

Gottlieb's amendment is problematic in that it would limit the potential Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates to sitting circuit court and appellate judges.  While I generally like judicial experience, the limitation would cut out brilliant law professors, attorneys with a wealth of experience, former legislators, etc. as potential candidates.  The measure would also require a supermajority of the State Senate to confirm - which, while it seems like it would augur toward judicial impartiality, might also result in complete impracticality and gridlock given partisan interests.  Finally, the third leg of Gottlieb's plan undercuts the merit system in large part; while they wouldn't run initially, justices would still have to run in retention elections.  The inclusion of the mechanism begs the question...why shouldn't they just run in the first place then?

The Gottlieb amendment deserves additional consideration and scrutiny, but as long as the amendment effectively finds that individual voters are not smart enough to make a decision even with plenty of available disclosure on which interests are backing a given Supreme Court candidate, how a candidate treats other candidates in ads, etc., I'm probably not in favor of its passage.  Taking away the constitutionally enshrined power of the electorate to vote in judicial elections is a significant step and it needs to be done right if it's going to be done at all.

ADDED: It appears the State Senate, in much the same vein, also passed this bill, which will likely prove problematic:

The Senate also approved an anti-bullying bill that would require the state Department of Public Instruction to write a model policy that defines and bans bullying and sets up a process for bullying to be confidentially reported and investigated.