Walker Guts Impartial Justice Act

Governor’s budget proposal eliminates key funding source

March 2, 2011

Amidst the carnage in Governor Scott Walker’s Robin Hood-in-reverse budget blueprint is the gutting of Wisconsin’s Impartial Justice Act reforming state Supreme Court elections. The governor proposes eliminating a key funding source for the new program in the budget plan he announced yesterday.

“The practical effect of Walker’s proposal would be to bring back Supreme Court auctions like those seen in 2007 and 2008,” Democracy Campaign director Mike McCabe said. “Candidates would have to go back to begging wealthy special interests for big donations in order to compete for a seat on the state’s highest court.”

The public financing system enacted in late 2009 is in effect for the first time in this year’s state Supreme Court election. While sitting Supreme Court justices commonly ran unopposed in past years – with the notable exception of 2008 when the incumbent faced a single opponent in a race marked by record-breaking special interest spending and smear campaigning – this year’s contest attracted four candidates, three of whom qualified for public financing under the Impartial Justice Act.

Only one of the law’s two major features is in effect for this election, however. Thanks to the funding source Governor Walker seeks to eliminate, participating candidates are receiving basic public grants allowing them to campaign without having to turn to special interest donors for financial support. But the law also is designed to supply candidates with extra funds if they face attacks by high-spending opponents. That feature of the law cannot be implemented in this year’s election because new rules requiring disclosure of interest group election spending have been tied up in court and therefore are not in effect. Without disclosure of the spending, the matching funds that would be triggered under the Impartial Justice Act cannot be provided to candidates.

The right-wing Club for Growth spent at least $321,000 on advertising in support of incumbent Justice David Prosser leading up to last month’s primary election, but because of the court injunction preventing formal disclosure of the group’s activity, no matching funds were distributed to the two other primary candidates who qualified for public financing.