Supreme Court justice candidates will have access to limited public financing for their campaigns under a new law signed by Gov. Jim Doyle Tuesday.
The Impartial Justice Bill, cosponsored by by two Senate and two Assembly Democrats, creates a “democracy trust fund” that houses taxpayer dollars donated for campaign purposes.
According to the bill, justice candidates who raise between $5,000 and $15,000 from at least 1,000 different sources can receive $100,000 for the spring primary and $300,000 for the spring election.
Sponsor Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said the bill was drafted after Wisconsin gained national attention for its Supreme Court races due to the exorbitant amounts spent and sizeable donations from private donors.
For example, in the 2008 race between Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Randy Koschnick, Abrahamson had more than $1 million at her disposal where Koschnick raised only about $400,000.
This has led to concern about the neutrality of justices.
“I’m not saying (justices) won’t be impartial, but it undermines public trust,” Hintz said. “How would you feel if you were presenting a case across from someone who has donated to the justice’s campaign?”
Because the judicial elections take place in the spring, Hintz said voter turnout is very low and the majority of campaign donations come from people with business before the court.
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, agreed the limits imposed are especially important in maintaining fairness in the courts.
“This has been a reform that we’ve been fighting for for 10 years,” Heck said. “These are the most significant finance reform measures anywhere in county this year in terms of what it’s doing in public financing.”
Heck added further reform is still needed, including disclosure of “attack ads,” which he said have brought down the class of Supreme Court justice campaigns in recent years. Because of a decision pending before the United States Supreme Court, the state cannot take any legislative actions on these ads.
He added these reforms are also the first step toward broader reform in elections, specifically on the gubernatorial and legislative levels.
Hintz agreed this bill is not perfect because there are restrictions on how to manage campaign finance, but he said this bill helps show the difference between judicial and legislative campaigns.
“We certainly took a big step, but this bill does not include the accountability to clean up ads which are not done by candidates but by national groups who (candidates) don’t really know,” Hintz said. “If we are serious about broad-based campaign finance reform this is something that should be addressed.”
He added he is hopeful the Legislature will consider measures to reform outside campaign ads in the near future.
However, not everyone agreed this bill was necessary. Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, member of the Senate Committee on Labor, Elections and Urban Affairs, said he does not see a need for publicly funded Supreme Court justice campaigns
“It’s hard to believe a state looking at a structural deficit of billions of dollars would ask taxpayers to spend more money to finance campaigns,” Grothman said.