Tag Archives: Campaign Legal Center

Wis. Supreme Court urged to bar judges from cases involving their donors

The Wisconsin Supreme Court this week postponed an open meeting about whether to bar judges, including those on the high court, from hearing cases involving people who donated significantly to their election campaigns.

The Supreme Court, whose 5-2 majority leans conservative, was scheduled to take up a petition on March 16 from 54 retired Wisconsin judges pushing for the rule change.

But the open meeting was postponed until April 20 after Brian McGrath, a lawyer for the conservative group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, emailed the court to say his group intends to show that the petition “should be dismissed without a further and wasteful investment of judicial and public resources” and plans to submit its arguments in writing in the next 30 days.

Jenni Dye, a research director at the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said in a statement she’s not surprised the court accommodated the group.

“The coalition of retired judges asking for this rule change were concerned about corruption or the appearance of corruption on the court,” she said. “That the court would go along with this request from a conservative group is further proof the rules need to change to insulate the justices from influence of special interests.”

The institute’s president, Rick Esenberg, said the court is doing what it should by waiting for input from various points of view.

“What could possibly be the problem with taking the time to listen to a petition from someone with another perspective?” he said.

Esenberg said his group plans to argue that tightening the rules would inhibit free speech by steering individual supporters away from contributing to campaigns and amplifying special interest groups.

“Speech cannot happen without resources,” he said. “If we’re going to have elections, we need to be able to have a public conversation.”

The postponement came the day a national campaign finance watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center, sent a letter to the court urging it to adopt stricter rules, arguing that Wisconsin lags behind other states in preventing judicial conflicts of interest.

The Brennan Center for Justice also sent the court a letter this week urging a review of the rules.

Currently, donors can give up to $20,000 to Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates and a court can’t force judges to recuse themselves from cases with possible conflicts of interest.

Former Milwaukee County Judge Michael Skwierawski, who helped write the petition, said he’s troubled by the influx of money to judicial campaigns.

“It puts judges in a difficult position when all that extra money is forced on campaigns,” he said, adding that even judges who act in good faith risk having the appearance of their independence tarnished.

“Someone cannot simply pay for a judge’s election and expect the public to believe the judge could be fair on a case involving that party,” he said.

The petition suggested requiring judges to recuse themselves if they have received campaign donations from any parties in the case of varying amounts, ranging from $10,000 for state Supreme Court justices to $500 for municipal judges. The proposal would include in the total any expenditures made to influence the outcome of an election, including those to third parties, though Esenberg expressed doubts about whether this would be viable. If more than four judges are recused for a case, the proposal suggests allowing an appeals court judge or retired Supreme Court justices to hear a case to ensure four judges.

Candidates currently are also free to coordinate with outside interest groups who spend money on so-called issue advocacy but stop short of endorsing specific candidates. That stems from a 2015 Wisconsin Supreme Court case centered on whether Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated with outside interest groups.

Now-retired Justice David Prosser, one of three conservative judges to halt the investigation, acknowledged at the time that some groups under investigation had helped his campaign, but he refused to recuse himself, saying the spending happened years ago.

 

Fewer than 60 donors account for one-third of 2016 campaign money raised

It took Ted Cruz three months to raise $10 million for his campaign for president, a springtime sprint of $1,000-per-plate dinners, hundreds of handshakes and a stream of emails asking supporters to chip in a few bucks.

One check, from one donor, topped those results.

New York hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer’s $11 million gift to a group backing the Texas Republican’s White House bid put him atop a tiny group of millionaires and billionaires whose contributions already dwarf those made by the tens of thousands of people who have given to their favorite presidential candidate.

An Associated Press analysis of fundraising reports filed with federal regulators through July 31 found that nearly 60 donations of a million dollars or more accounted for about a third of the more than $380 million brought in so far for the 2016 presidential election. Donors who gave at least $100,000 account for about half of all donations so far to candidates’ presidential committees and the super PACs that support them.

The review covered contributions to outside groups that can accept checks of any size, known as super PACs, and to the formal campaigns, which are limited to accepting no more than $2,700 per donor. The tally includes donations from individuals, corporations and other organizations reflected in data filed with the Federal Election Commission as of July 31, the deadline for super PACs to report for the first six months of the year.

That concentration of money from a small group of wealthy donors builds on a trend that began in 2012, the first presidential contest after a series of court rulings and regulatory steps that created the super PAC. They can openly support candidates but may not directly coordinate their actions with their campaigns.

“We have never seen an election like this, in which the wealthiest people in America are dominating the financing of the presidential election and as a consequence are creating enormous debts and obligations from the candidates who are receiving this financial support,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington-based group that wants to limit money in politics.

Others see an upside to the rainmakers.

“Big money gives us more competitive elections by helping many more candidates spread their message,” said David Keating, director of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates for fewer campaign finance limits.

For any number of reasons, these donors are willing to give so generously. Some may have a business that stands to gain from an executive branch that changes how an industry is regulated, while others hope for plum administration assignments, such as a diplomatic post overseas or a cabinet position.

Many say their contributions, which the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as equivalent to free speech, merely reflect their intense belief in a particular candidate — and in the political system in general.

“I’d think that the fact that I’m willing to spend money in the public square rather than buying myself a toy would be considered a good thing,” said Scott Banister, a Silicon Valley investor who gave $1.2 million to a super PAC helping Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the Republican presidential race.

“The voters still, at the end of the day, make the decision,” he said. “You can spend $1 billion trying to tell the voters to vote for a set of ideas they don’t like, and they will still vote against the candidate.”

For Florida developer Al Hoffman, financial support of the state’s former governor, Jeb Bush, is personal. A longtime friend and political contributor to the Bush family, he gave $1 million to Bush’s super PAC, contributing to its record-setting haul of $103 million in the first six months of the year.

Others see an upside to the rainmakers.

“Big money gives us more competitive elections by helping many more candidates spread their message,” said David Keating, director of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates for fewer campaign finance limits.

For any number of reasons, these donors are willing to give so generously. Some may have a business that stands to gain from an executive branch that changes how an industry is regulated, while others hope for plum administration assignments, such as a diplomatic post overseas or a cabinet position.

Many say their contributions, which the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as equivalent to free speech, merely reflect their intense belief in a particular candidate — and in the political system in general.

“I’d think that the fact that I’m willing to spend money in the public square rather than buying myself a toy would be considered a good thing,” said Scott Banister, a Silicon Valley investor who gave $1.2 million to a super PAC helping Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the Republican presidential race.

“The voters still, at the end of the day, make the decision,” he said. “You can spend $1 billion trying to tell the voters to vote for a set of ideas they don’t like, and they will still vote against the candidate.”

For Florida developer Al Hoffman, financial support of the state’s former governor, Jeb Bush, is personal. A longtime friend and political contributor to the Bush family, he gave $1 million to Bush’s super PAC, contributing to its record-setting haul of $103 million in the first six months of the year.

Such totals put them well ahead of Paul, former technology executive Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum — who all began their presidential campaigns in the spring.

Cruz’s super PACs, meanwhile, didn’t just get the $11 million from Mercer. They also received a $10 million donation from Toby Neugebauer, an energy investor in Texas, while the Texas-based Wilks family pooled together a $15 million gift.

Super PACs will spend as campaigns do, investing in polling and data sets, hiring employees in key states and buying pricey television and digital advertising, direct mailings and phone calls to voters. Their money will be important in early primary states, but also would allow those with deep-pocket backers to campaign beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.

“There are a handful of billionaires that are making viable individuals whose campaigns never would have gotten off the ground,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, which wants to tighten limits on money in politics. “Some of these candidates will go much deeper into the primaries than they otherwise could, thanks only to this kind of money.