Who Funds Sponsors of the State Supreme Court Bill?

January 9, 2015

Authors of a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is chosen have accepted nearly $780,000 from special interests since they’ve been in office.

The proposed amendment was the subject of a legislative hearing Thursday. If approved by the Republican-controlled legislature in the coming weeks, the proposal could go to voters as a statewide referendum during the spring elections in April for final approval.

For the past 125 years, the state constitution has designated the longest serving member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court as the chief justice. The proposed amendment would change the constitution to allow a majority vote of the seven-member court to choose any of the justices as the chief every two years.

The proposal was authored by Senator Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst and Representative Rob Hutton of Brookfield, both Republicans. Tiffany has accepted $731,789 from special interest groups led by manufacturing, business and banking interests and retirees, and Hutton has accepted $47,996 from special interests led by transportation and manufacturing interests and retirees.

Tiffany’s top contributors are Minocqua grocery store owners Trygve and Tula Solberg who contributed $4,450.

Hutton’s top contributors are three couples who have given him $2,000 each: Waukesha attorney Steve Hartung and his wife, Beth Ann, and retirees John and Jane Evans of Oconomowoc and Ted and Sharon Hutton of Brookfield.

Tiffany and other supporters of the proposed amendment say the high court should be able to elect its own leader.

But the plan is seen by critics - such as One Wisconsin Now - as a way for the high court’s 4-3 conservative majority to oust long-time Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who is often labeled a liberal judge. Abrahamson would continue to serve the remaining five years of her 10-year term on the court.

Majority GOP legislators are also expected to introduce another proposal that would set the mandatory retirement age at 75 for all state judges. Critics of the plan say it’s a way to force Abrahamson, who is 81, to retire, and that a judge’s age should continue to be left up to voters since judges are elected in Wisconsin.