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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Legislators hear justice plea for campaign finance changes

The seven Supreme Court justices of
Wisconsin wrote a letter Monday to the governor and state legislators
supporting public financing for Supreme Court campaigns.

The letter came a day before the
beginning of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's special session, which
will address campaign finance reform among other issues.

"We write to support the concept of
realistic, meaningful public financing for Supreme Court elections to
facilitate and protect the judicial function," Chief Justice
Shirley Abrahamson and six other justices wrote in the letter. "The
risk inherent in any non-publicly funded judicial election for this
Court is that the public may inaccurately perceive a justice as
beholden to individuals or groups that contribute to his or her


Abrahamson said the letter was not in
response to any particular situation, but rather a trend.

"Many of us have been talking about
this for a long time," Abrahamson said. "For example, I have
supported public financing since I started on the court, and the fact
that in several campaigns in recent years more and more money is
being spent and polls show that the more money that is spent, the
higher the risk that the public will perceive that judges might not
be fair, impartial, neutral and nonpartisan."

She added the court does not support
any particular bill or provision, but rather the concept of public
financing for Supreme Court campaigns.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common
Cause Wisconsin, said nothing like the writing of this letter has
ever been done before.

"It's an amazingly significant
document because to our knowledge it's unprecedented in the nation
where you have all the members of a state Supreme Court issuing a
letter of support for public financing," Heck said. "It indicates
that the court is really concerned about the last election."

The last Supreme Court election took
place in April 2007 between Justice Annette Ziegler and her opponent,
Linda Clifford. Their campaigns for the Supreme Court seat totaled
almost $6 million given by special interest groups.

"Justices probably find themselves
being increasingly unable to render impartial decisions if some of
the people who come before them are people that contributed either
huge amounts of money to their campaigns, or in the case of
[Wisconsin Manufacturers in Commerce], spent $2 million in outside
spending to elect Ziegler," Heck said. "I think the public is
very skeptical to whether or not she can be truly impartial in a
situation like that."

WMC is currently party to a case being
heard before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The organization, Heck
said, wrote a brief supporting an argument before the court. It is up
to a justice to determine if they have a conflict of interest in a
case, he said, and Ziegler chose not to remove herself.

"I don't think any Supreme Court
justice wants to be in the business of raising campaign money and
then be forced to recuse themselves in a case if one of their
contributors comes before the court," Heck said.

Doyle wants two campaign finance reform
bills to be considered in the special session, Heck said. One of
them, Senate Bill 171, would provide complete public funding for
Supreme Court elections. Each candidate who agreed to campaign
spending limits would get $400,000 in public money, which would come
from taxes.

"I think it's not a lot to ask to
have some tax money support democracy and clean elections," Heck
said. "It makes for a more partial, independent judiciary. And
that's obviously very important that the state Supreme Court level,
the highest court in the state."

Abrahamson agrees the Wisconsin public
must believe in their Supreme Court.

"We want to do everything possible to
maintain trust and confidence that the Wisconsin judiciary is a
judiciary that is neutral, fair, impartial and nonpartisan," she

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