Supreme Court Ruling and Important Step in Reform

June 8, 2009

Logo: League of Women VotersLogo: Common Cause in WisconsinLogo: Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Madison - Any citizen who has to appear in court should have absolute confidence that the judge will be fair and impartial. But campaign spending in recent Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin and other states has left the public wondering if the judges they elect will deliver justice based on the law, or on who made the biggest campaign gift.

Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case related to how much influence special interests will have on our courts.

In 2004, a West Virginia coal executive working for Massey Energy Company spent $3 million to elect a state Supreme Court justice while appealing a $50 million jury award against his company. In 2007, that justice rejected a motion to recuse himself, and joined two colleagues as the court overturned the jury award in a 3-2 decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized a constitutional obligation to recuse when a judge has a direct financial stake in a case. In the Caperton v. Massey case, the court was asked to decide whether heavy campaign spending by a litigant should force a judge to step aside.

We are pleased by today’s ruling in favor of Caperton, establishing a “constitutional floor,” a minimum standard of due process needed to ensure that all parties receive a fair, impartial judgment. Furthermore, the Caperton v. Massey case highlights the need for states to enact their own reforms to reduce special interest influence.

In Wisconsin, progress toward these reforms is underway on three fronts.

The Impartial Justice bill currently before the state Legislature would provide public financing for Supreme Court elections. Public financing was endorsed by all seven justices in a December 2007 letter to state lawmakers and is also endorsed by the State Bar of Wisconsin. The people of Wisconsin deserve Supreme Court elections where candidates consistently matter and have the means to get their message out to voters so there is a true competition of ideas. Candidates should not be mere bystanders in special interest-dominated campaigns.

Enactment of the Impartial Justice bill would go a long way toward restoring public trust in our courts, but by itself it is not a cure-all. Something needs to be done to make sure that interest groups follow the same rules as candidates and abide by longstanding disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limits. Otherwise voters will continue to be kept in the dark about who is trying to influence the outcome of elections, and special interests will continue to enjoy a privileged capacity to bend the political process to serve their own purposes.

The state Government Accountability Board has unanimously approved a new rule requiring special interest groups to fully disclose the campaign advertising they sponsor and abide by existing limitations on campaign contributions. Legislation mirroring the GAB rule is pending in the state Legislature and its passage will cement this critically important reform in state law.

Finally, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Fund, with the support of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause in Wisconsin, has asked the state Supreme Court to institute new rules that prohibit judges and justices from ruling on cases involving major campaign contributors. Specifically, the League has petitioned the Court to amend Wisconsin’s Judicial Code by approving standard rules for when a judge must withdraw from a case—a process known as recusal. Judges would recuse themselves from all cases in which one party or its lawyer has contributed $1,000 or more, or tried to influence a campaign through mass communications.

Campaign gifts certainly don’t automatically undermine a judge’s neutrality. But the increasing campaign donations we have seen in recent years do severely erode public trust, even when a judge may be acting fairly. A national poll done in 2008 for the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan national partnership that supports fair and impartial courts, showed that 78 percent of Wisconsin voters believe that campaign contributions are likely to bias a judge’s decision.

The new recusal rules would restore public trust that campaign contributions will not influence a judge’s decisions and give notice to special interests that there is no benefit to turning court elections into a financial arms race—not when the judge they help elect will not be allowed to hear their case.

Together these reforms will restore public confidence in Wisconsin’s progressive tradition of election of judges and justices.