Wisconsin Supreme Court upends century-old law and greenlights broad Legislative power to mislead voters on ballot questions
The Wisconsin Supreme Court today upheld the 2020 victims’ rights constitutional amendment. In doing so, the court tossed out a standard for assessing constitutional questions in place since 1925 and created a new standard never argued by the parties.
The majority decision and two concurrences used more ink on debates about how to interpret the constitution and the place of originalism—a theory of constitutional interpretation aimed at discerning the intent of a provision at the time it was adopted—than on the arguments raised by the parties in the case before it.
Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Annette Ziegler, Justice Patience Roggensack, and Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley. Hagedorn also wrote a concurrence to his own majority opinion. Grassl Bradley wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Ziegler and Roggensack. Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Jill Karofsky.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley dissented.
No justice denied that the victims' rights amendment diminished the rights of an accused under the state constitution. In her dissent, Walsh Bradley expressly noted that it did.
The state defendants, who filed the appeal, never raised any question about the applicable legal standard in their briefs or at oral argument. As noted by Walsh Bradley in her concurrence, they confirmed at oral argument that they were not asking the court to overturn any prior decision.
The precedent at issue was the Supreme Court's 1925 decision in State ex rel. Ekern v. Zimmerman. The parties argued their case in the trial court and appellate briefs under the language of Ekern and another case from 1953.
The Supreme Court never asked the parties to re-brief the appeal to address whether the standard in Ekern should be rejected, what a new test might be, and how the 2020 ballot question fared against the new standard.
Nevertheless, the majority threw out the Ekern test as unsupported by the text of the constitution and its original meaning. The constitution requires only that an amendment be “submitted” to the people without “any explicit obligations regarding form or substance,” Hagedorn wrote. “The text simply requires that the people must have the opportunity to ratify or reject a proposed amendment.” He pointed to early ballot questions from 1850s and 1860s that asked voters merely whether they were voting for or against amending the constitution, without any indication of the amendment’s contents at all.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court in Ekern had stated that a constitutional amendment question presented to voters “must reasonably, intelligently, and fairly comprise or have reference to every essential of the amendment” and that the “essential criterion” is “an intelligent and comprehensive submission to the people, so that the latter may be fully informed on the subject upon which they are required to exercise a franchise.”
After tossing any standard from Ekern, the court adopted its new standard: a ballot question is invalid “only in the rare circumstance that the question is fundamentally counterfactual such that voters were not asked to approve the actual amendment.”
Telling voters in the question that crime victims and those accused of crime would have rights protected “with equal force,” while the amendment actually provides that crime victims’ rights are protected “no less vigorous(ly)” than an accused’s was not “fundamentally counterfactual,” said the court. WJI had argued that “equal to” and “equal or greater than” were not equivalent.
Failing to tell voters that the amendment deleted a sentence of the constitution ensuring that victims’ rights provisions in the constitution or state statutes would not limit any right of an accused, while diverting voters with a phrase indicating that federal constitutional rights were not impacted by the amendment, did not rise to the level of a fundamentally counterfactual question, said the court.
“(T)he issue is not whether the amendment was explained, but whether it was ‘submitted’ to the people. Nothing in the constitution requires that all components be presented in the ballot question. The constitution leaves the level of detail required to the Legislature, which may impose more or less requirements on itself,” Hagedorn wrote.
The ballot question need not under the constitution present any kind of description of the amendment’s substance to voters at all, he wrote.
Grassl Bradley in her concurrence included significant disagreement with Dallet over constitutional interpretation.
She also opined that voters are expected to review in advance and educate themselves about proposed constitutional amendments. “By analogy, a ballot for President of the United States does not describe the candidates or their platforms. Voters are trusted to inform themselves,” she wrote.
Dallet and Karofsky would have retained the Ekern test, but found that the ballot question satisfied it.
Walsh Bradley would have retained the Ekern test, and she agreed with WJI and the four individual plaintiffs that under Ekern the 2020 ballot question was invalid.
She agreed that the provisions of the vicitms’ rights amendment “do, in fact, decrease the rights afforded to criminal defendants,” and remarked on the majority’s failure to recognize it.
“From the ballot question only, voters would have no idea that the proposed amendment diminishes the rights of criminal defendants in addition to bolstering the rights of crime victims. In my view, the diminution of a defendant’s rights previously protected by law, constitutes an ‘essential’ element of the amendment,” she wrote.
Walsh Bradley noted that the Ekern test furthered the aims of democracy: “Making sure that a ballot question includes ‘every essential’ of an amendment ensures that the public is informed and can ‘vote intelligently.’ This is critical to maintaining a democracy.”
The majority’s test “risks giving the Legislature carte blanche in crafting ballot questions,” while Ekern provided a safeguard for the public against being misled, she wrote.
“(R)ather than respecting the precedent of a nearly century-old unanimous opinion, the majority charts a new course not requested by either party. Instead of applying the test established in Ekern, the majority conjures its own test, never before stated, much less applied,” she wrote. “In addition to being created by the majority from whole cloth, this new test is unnecessary for the simple reason that we already have a test from Ekern.”
Walsh Bradley recognized that the new test would be “news to the parties here, who both argued their positions in terms of the ‘every essential’ framework Ekern sets forth.”
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