Tag Archives: judicial campaigns

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.


Wisconsin justices reward their donors with a ruling that creates a lawless playing field for political campaigns

It came as no surprise when the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided to end a John Doe investigation into the illegal coordination of fundraising activities between Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 re-election campaign and the independent “dark money” groups that support him. After all, the court’s conservative majority had collected $8 million in donations from the political groups being probed.

The decision overturned a state law banning the coordination of fundraising and campaign activities between political groups.

In the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Citizens United, political groups were empowered to raise limitless funds from anonymous sources. But campaigns are still subject to a law placing limits on how much an individual can give to them directly. In making the dividing line between campaigns and dark money groups porous, Wisconsin’s high court exponentially amplified the impact of Citizens United in the state.

Now, almost anything goes for political campaigns in Wisconsin. This is the culmination of years of Republicans notching away at laws designed to curb the influence of money in politics.

To be clear, the law was firmly on the side of the John Doe prosecutors, who contended that when Walker directed donors to contribute money to the Koch-brothers’-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth instead of directly to his campaign, they were illegally coordinating. But in a majority opinion that seems to have been written in the Twilight Zone, Gableman denied that the law banning advocacy groups from coordinating with campaigns could have existed, because it would have violated donors’ freedom of speech.

It’s unclear whether the ruling will have much impact. The law was already hazy.  Illegal coordination has been going on all along, and authorities have simply ignored it.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, recently introduced a bill to more effectively ban coordination between super PACs and political candidates by strengthening the definition of “coordination.” We trust that Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin will support the bill, and we urge concerned citizens to barrage Sen. Ron Johnson with calls to do them same.

But Gableman’s opinion does bring campaign coordination out of the closet. Candidates in the state no longer have to fake playing by the rules, which will make them bolder and more audacious than ever in manipulating elections.

It’s worth noting that Gableman also ordered the destruction of all the records that prosecutors painstakingly gathered for the case at taxpayer expense. He not only had his benefactors’ backs, but Walker’s as well, shielding him from potentially damaging revelations.

A pattern is emerging among Republican corporatists like the court’s judicial shills. If they don’t like a law, a policy or an agency, they simply cut it out of the picture like a philandering ex-husband.

The ruling in this case mirrors recent efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to eliminate the pesky Government Accountability Board, the Legislative Audit Bureau and even the state’s open records law. Those proposals were dropped after stirring unforeseen public outrage, but they’re still in the works, waiting for a more opportune moment.

Gableman topped off his ruling with a dollop of shameless ass-kissing. He praised the defendants in the case for their bravery in filing a self-serving lawsuit to further their influence over public policy. He contorted the greediest and shadiest of political players into champions of free speech.

Is it a coincidence that two of those defendants spent a total of $2.25 million helping to elect Gableman, who was deemed unqualified by several legal groups and ran a racist campaign ad so misleading that it spurred a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission and Citizen Action of Wisconsin?

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that’s what we have in Wisconsin. Until the iron-clad rule of corporatist Republicans is broken, we expect more chipping away of campaign rules and sunshine laws until there’s nothing left — or until people start paying attention and demand reform.