?Fair and balanced? ? it is the vaunted ideal for our
American court system and our judges.
But recent record-breaking expenditures on Wisconsin Supreme
Court races threaten the very bedrock of impartiality upon which our judicial
system is built. Lady Justice may be blind, but even a lack of sight cannot
prevent her from noticing the millions of dollars being poured into the scale
she holds, tipping the balance away from Wisconsin voters and toward the
special interests. Without forward-thinking vision and dramatic campaign
finance reform, we risk our state Supreme Court devolving into an institution
that is no more ?fair and balanced? than Fox News.
Last year?s Supreme Court justice race between Linda
Clifford and Annette Ziegler shocked Wisconsinites into opening their eyes to
witness what effectively amounted to buying a seat on the bench. The 2007
election saw total expenditures of roughly $6 million, more than four times the
previous record in a Wisconsin court race.
Special interest groups with phony ?issue ads? outspent both
candidates combined. These groups are not required to disclose their spending
in campaign finance reports, which, according to the Wisconsin Democracy
Campaign, resulted in $2 out of every $3 in the 2007 race being concealed from
the public. One organization, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, accounted
for more than 40 percent of the total spending in the election ? more than $2.4
million in support of Ms. Ziegler, $1 million more than her own campaign spent
on the race. It also surpasses the 2006 special interest expenditures for the
gubernatorial race between Jim Doyle and Mark Green. Combined. And that was an
actual, explicit partisan race.
Thankfully, since that 2007 debacle, the state Senate took
action and passed two vital bills targeting this disconcerting affront to
judicial independence. The first, Senate Bill 77, requires full disclosure of
special interest electioneering. The second, the Impartial Justice Bill (SB
171), was passed in the Senate last week. It lays the groundwork for a system
of full public financing of state Supreme Court elections, in the hopes of
preventing another auctioning of an election.
Although the Impartial Justice bill does not force public
financing, it does make it a more realistic option for candidates for the high
court. Individuals would have to prove their viability by fundraising a certain
amount from a threshold number of donors statewide. In addition, the maximum
campaign contributions for Supreme Court races would decrease to $1000 per
individual or committee (compared to the current atrocious $10,000 for an
individual and $8625 for a committee, not including issue ads). The bill
coasted through the Senate, but the Republican-controlled Assembly is not
likely to take it up soon.
A January 2008 survey by American Viewpoint found that more
than 65 percent of Wisconsin voters strongly support a plan to offer public
financing in judicial elections. Additionally, 78 percent of voters believe
campaign contributions have a ?great deal? or ?some? influence on the decisions
judges make in the courtrooms, and it is in the public?s interest for the
Legislature to champion reform, allow the bill to come to a vote in the
Assembly and preserve what impartiality remains in our Supreme Court. Ultimately
in politics, perception is reality, and justices not only have to be fair and
balanced, but they must also be perceived as such by the public.
We cannot delude ourselves into believing the problem ended
with the 2007 election of Annette Ziegler. Rather, that was only the beginning
of a new era and a contract we can hope to cut short.
We have yet another Supreme Court election upon us this
spring, with Michael Gableman challenging incumbent Louis Butler. This race,
too, is plagued by the pervasive pecuniary power of political action
committees. Groups like the Greater Wisconsin Committee and the Club for
Growth-Wisconsin have already spent $290,000 in airtime for ?issue ads?
supporting Mr. Butler and Mr. Gableman, with WMC poised to rear its ugly head
once again. And it?s only February. How many more dollars will partisan players
spend by the time the April 1 election rolls around?
It is time for the Legislature to step in and tip the scales
back in favor of impartial justice and reclaim the Wisconsin Supreme Court from
the influence of incendiary issue ads and the shady special interest
expenditures. In December, all seven current justices signed a letter in
support of ?realistic, meaningful public financing.? Take heed, Speaker Mike
Huebsch, R-West Salem, and bring this necessary reform to a vote in the
The Impartial Justice bill is a significant and absolutely
vital step toward fair and clean elections. The entire campaign finance system
needs dramatic overhaul, but the election of Supreme Court justices is the
direst case. The depoliticizing of the judicial system is not inherently a
partisan issue; no group should be able to buy justice. Hopefully, it will not
take another purchased election to force our representatives to open their
Suchita Shah ([email protected]) is a senior
majoring in neurobiology.