$6 Million Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Is Part of a Disturbing National Trend

May 17, 2007

A new national analysis of 2006 judicial elections draws many disturbing parallels to Wisconsin’s recent $6 million race for the Supreme Court, concluding that more state judicial contests are being infected by the spread of big money campaigns that are dominated by special interest groups.

Special interest pressure is metastasizing into a permanent national threat to the fairness and impartiality of America’s courts, according to a report issued today by the Washington-based Justice at Stake Campaign and its partners, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the National Institute for Money in State Politics.

At the same time, a new opinion survey released by the Committee for Economic Development in concert with the report shows that four of five business leaders worry that campaign contributions have a major influence on decisions rendered by judges.

"Wisconsin just endured the ugliest Supreme Court race the state has ever seen," said Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "When all is said and done and the final campaign reports are filed in July, spending on the Supreme Court race will top $6 million – more than four times the previous record for a high court race in Wisconsin."

Most alarming, McCabe noted, was that special interest spending far outpaced candidate spending, and preliminary estimates conclude that one special interest group was responsible for more than 40 percent of all spending that can be accounted for so far in the race.

Another concern is that the special interest money that pays for most political ads goes unreported. Of the $6 million spent on the 2007 Supreme Court race, slightly more than $2 million has been disclosed on campaign finance reports filed with the Wisconsin Elections Board. In other words, $2 out of every $3 used to influence the outcome of the election has been concealed from public view, McCabe said.

"As a result of April’s election, Wisconsin is left with a cloud that now hangs over the state’s highest court," said McCabe. "Because of the pathologies that were so evident in this race, the public is now left to wonder whether judges are beholden simply to the law."

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, along with Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, urge state lawmakers to make necessary reforms to restore fairness and impartiality in Wisconsin’s courts. The state Senate last week passed SB 170, the Judicial Right to Know bill, and SB 77, a truth-in-campaigning bill requiring full disclosure of special interest electioneering. The Senate also plans to vote on SB 171, the Impartial Justice bill establishing public financing of state Supreme Court elections.

The full Justice at Stake Campaign report and related materials are available online at www.justiceatstake.org.