Turning Auctions Back Into Elections

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

February 23, 2009

First came news that three of the four interest groups that together spent well over $4 million and did 90 percent of the television advertising in the 2008 state Supreme Court election are planning to sit out this year’s race.

This is no small thing. The three groups – corporate lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and right-wing front groups Club for Growth and Coalition for America’s Families – effectively bought seats on the court in the last two elections.

Then came word that Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson already has raised more than $1 million to fund her reelection bid, giving her a commanding financial lead over opponent Randy Koschnick.

The two developments are most likely related. And while they have cheered many of the chief justice’s fans, there is curse lurking where they see only blessing.

For one thing, it’s too early to know whether outside interest groups will jump in this race or not. In the last two races, the outside groups’ campaigning didn’t start in earnest until well after the primary election. Then they threw it into high gear, outspending the candidates by a healthy margin in 2007 and overwhelming them in 2008.

Just because three of the chief perpetrators of these hijackings say they’re going to take a pass this year doesn’t guarantee others won’t take their place. There are plenty of prospects, most notably the Greater Wisconsin Committee on the left and All Children Matter and the Wisconsin Institute for Leadership on the right.

For another thing, the fact that the incumbent chief justice’s campaign war chest has reached seven figures is a double-edged sword. She can’t be blamed for raising money so aggressively. Supreme Court elections have been turned into auctions, and special interest groups ran almost all of the TV ads in last year’s race and controlled most all of what voters were able to read, see and hear about the candidates. No candidate wants to be turned into a bystander in an election. Bystanders have a way of becoming roadkill in politics.

But having to raise a million dollars or more in an attempt to defend yourself against the political equivalent of a drive-by shooting is guaranteed to cause severe headaches down the road. In fact it’s already starting to show. The Associated Press reported the other day that Abrahamson has accepted $11,500 in donations from trial lawyers who have a major medical malpractice case pending before the court. Nagging concerns about conflicts of interest loom.

Candidates for Supreme Court now have two choices, both of them lousy. You can steer clear of financial conflicts that will compromise you as a judge. And you surrender control over your electoral destiny and most likely lose. Or you can join the money game, but then be dogged by conflict-of-interest charges and have your independence as a jurist constantly called into question. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

There is a way out of this trap. Actually, there are two legs to the journey. The first is the Impartial Justice bill – SB 40 – which creates publicly financed Supreme Court elections. Candidates for the high court would be freed from the money chase and those elected could act independently of the special interest influences that are contaminating our justice system.

The second is full disclosure of special interest electioneering – just introduced as Senate Bill 43 – which pulls back the curtain and lets the public see who’s pulling the levers in court campaigns. And prevents groups from dancing around existing limits on campaign contributions and operating outside the law.

The majority of members of both the state Assembly and Senate are on record in favor of both bills. They’ve either already voted for them or have publicly pledged to do so.

The votes are there. Now they just need to follow through on their promises. And we can turn these Supreme Court auctions back into elections.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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