WDC Endorses New Impartial Justice Bill

Amid Growing Concerns Over Supreme Court’s Independence, Democracy Campaign to Make Push for Judicial Reform

April 2, 2003

Madison - Growing conflicts of interest on the state’s highest court underscore the need for a sweeping overhaul of the way state Supreme Court campaigns are conducted, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said today in announcing its formal endorsement of the soon-to-be-introduced "Impartial Justice" campaign reform bill.

The Democracy Campaign’s endorsement of the judicial reform legislation represents a change of heart of sorts for the organization, WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. In the past, the Democracy Campaign supported the concept of judicial reform but did not actively advocate for legislative action on past versions of the Impartial Justice bill, instead focusing solely on comprehensive reform legislation that applies to all races for state office.

McCabe said one factor in WDC’s decision to push for action on judicial reform as well as comprehensive reform was the Supreme Court’s recent action on an appeal by former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, current Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti and a former Foti aide seeking to get charges of felony misconduct in office thrown out. Three justices did not participate in the decision because of their campaign ties to Jensen or the state Republican Party. A fourth with such campaign links - Justice Patrick Crooks - took part, but it is not known how he voted because the court sent the appeal back to the Court of Appeals without comment.

Another factor is the growing prominence of major special interest donors in the campaigns for Supreme Court, McCabe said. Traditionally, campaign donors to Supreme Court candidates were limited for the most part to lawyers. The campaign finance reports filed by candidates in this year’s race are peppered with donations from political interests that in the past were kept at arm’s length - including partisan operatives, business interests, the state teachers union, banking and utility executives, real estate developers and construction companies.

"It is getting increasingly difficult to tell apart the donor lists of nonpartisan judges and partisan lawmakers," McCabe said. "It used to be that donations to Supreme Court campaigns came almost exclusively from the legal community. Now they’re coming from a who’s who of the most powerful economic and political interests in the state. The same people who are trying to buy favorable public policy are also now trying to buy justice."

WDC remains committed to comprehensive campaign finance reform and has endorsed Senate Bill 12 - the Ellis-Erpenbach campaign reform bill.