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Civil service reform and the beginning of Wisconsin's tradition of clean government

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

Political reform started in Wisconsin in the 1880s, well before Robert LaFollette came to power. There were several reasons for reform. Many citizens were tired of abuses committed by local party machines, and the rapid growth of Wisconsin's cities created a need for competent city employees who could do a better job than most political hangers-on. Local politics was changing, too. Many politicians now looked to big business rather than local party machines for support, and business wanted efficient government just as much as reformers.

Wisconsin passed its first civil service law in 1885 -- a limited one establishing a merit system for Milwaukee's police and fire departments. Reform accelerated in the 1890s. In 1895 the legislature passed a tough act forbidding bribery and other corrupt practices in state and local government, and in 1897 it extended the Milwaukee civil service system to cities throughout Wisconsin. But there was still no civil service system for state government.

Civil service reform was not one of Governor LaFollette's top priorities. One reason for this may have been that during his first years in office he was engaged in a desperate struggle with the conservative "Stalwart" faction of the Republican party for control of the state and needed all the patronage he could muster. LaFollette finally triumphed over the Stalwarts in 1904, and the next year he turned to Prof. John R. Commons of the University of Wisconsin for help with a civil service bill. Commons prepared a bill, based largely on a law New York had recently enacted, and the 1905 Legislature passed it with surprisingly little opposition.

The 1905 civil service law was one of the landmarks of the Progressive era. It created a merit-based system, based on competitive examinations, for virtually all state government jobs. Unlike most civil service laws of the time, it did not contain a "grandfather" clause exempting current employees from the examination requirement. LaFollette insisted that he would not take advantage of such a clause to entrench his supporters in office.

In later years, Commons -- who, as the author of several major laws of the Progressive era, was in a position to know -- concluded that the civil service law was the keystone without which other Progressive reforms could not have survived. He commented:

Without that law, and the protection which it gave to [LaFollette] and succeeding governors in making appointments, [the new] administrative commissions would soon have broken down....Their enactment depended on confidence, on the part of the strenuously conflicting economic interests, in the public officials to whom the administration of the law should be entrusted.

The law also created a new civil service commission and gave it broad power to set up the system. In 1905 it was highly unusual for legislatures to delegate so much power to an agency. Agencies were a new part of government and were not as well accepted as they are today. Opponents of the law argued to the Wisconsin Supreme Court that only the Legislature, not the commission, could fill in the details of the new system. In a pioneering case, State ex rel. Buell v. Frear (1906), the Court rejected that argument. By so doing, it paved the way not only for civil service reform to go forward but also for the delegation of many other functions of modern government to agencies.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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