Conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Must Recuse Themselves from John Doe

March 10, 2015

Later this term, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will be weighing in on challenges to the John Doe investigation concerning alleged coordination between Scott Walker’s campaign and so-called outside groups during the recall elections of 2011-2012.

But four of the justices now sitting on the court were aided enormously by expenditures by some of these same conservative, pro-business outside groups.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Wisconsin Club for Growth, and Citizens for a Strong America—all of which are reportedly embroiled in the John Doe--together spent more than $8 million in support of Justice Patience Roggensack, Justice Annette Ziegler, Justice Michael Gableman, and Justice David Prosser.

“It boggles the mind that these justices are essentially saying that they can somehow be impartial when these parties to the case have been stuffing their pockets with huge wads of cash,” says Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “This doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent about $5.6 million on these four conservative justices. Here’s the approximate breakdown:

$500,000 in support of Roggensack

$1,100,000 in support of Prosser

$1,760,000 in support of Gableman

$2,200,000 in support of Ziegler.

Wisconsin Club for Growth spent about:

$350,000 in support of Roggensack

$400,000 in support of Ziegler

$500,000 in support of Gableman

and $500,000 in support of Prosser.

Citizens for a Strong America spent about $1 million in support of Prosser in his tightly contested reelection race against JoAnne Kloppenburg in 2011.

Had any of those justices lost, the balance of the court would have shifted from conservative to liberal. In the two closest elections, Prosser won by about 7,000 votes and Gableman by about 20,000.

One of the John Does prosecutors, Francis Schmitz, who voted for Scott Walker, has asked at least one of these justices to recuse themselves—to not hear the case because of their conflict of interest.

In a U.S. Supreme court ruling in 2009 in Caperton v. Massey, the highest court in the land said that judges must recuse themselves from cases involving a party that had a “significant and disproportionate influence” on the judge getting elected.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not follow a similar line of thinking in July 2010 when it revised the Code of Judicial Conduct to allow judges to decide whether they could hear cases involving big campaign contributors and powerful special interest supporters.

Wisconsin’s weak judicial recusal rule, which lets judges stay on cases involving big campaign contributors or special interests groups that spent millions to help them get elected, got some unwelcome national attention on Tuesday.

Using data supplied by the Democracy Campaign, a New York Times editorial slammed the “pitifully weak rule” in Wisconsin’s judicial ethics code for not requiring judges to recuse themselves in cases involving a party that has spent money to help them get elected.