What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Wisconsin Supreme Court?
A handful of bright legal minds? Sure. A group of truly independent, neutral thinkers able to review our most challenging issues? Probably. Dignified, honorable people who you can trust? Of course. A scary looking woman howling at the moon? Unlikely.
So why is it that in Wisconsin over the past year Supreme Court campaigns have gone from dignified elections between bright legal scholars to races so dirty they would make Karl Rove blush?
The 2008 Supreme Court race between sitting Justice Louis Butler and challenger Mike Gableman is already taking shape as a replay of the 2007 campaign. And while the candidates try to talk directly to voters, shadowy organizations unaffiliated with either campaign are unleashing bruising multimillion-dollar attack ads, sullying the fine reputation of Wisconsin’s courts.
The long-term affect of these groups, led mainly by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), is that the average person in Wisconsin will have less trust in the judicial system.
A solution to this growing issue does exist.
Senate Bill 171, the Impartial Justice Bill, would take campaign donations out of the equation for electing Supreme Court justices in Wisconsin and limit the impact of groups like WMC by creating a system of full public financing for Supreme Court candidates.
Individual candidate spending in Supreme Court races would be capped at $400,000 and those who are bludgeoned by misleading, negative attacks will be granted limited matching funds.
While some might not believe it is optimal for state dollars to be spent on such elections, the alternative – allowing big special interest groups to bring partisan politics and multimillion-dollar campaigns into the courtroom – is far worse.
Last year all seven Wisconsin Supreme Court justices signed a letter supporting “the concept of realistic, meaningful public financing for Supreme Court elections…”
The justices went on to say, “The risk inherent in any non-publicly funded judicial election for this Court is that the public may inaccurately perceive a justice as beholden to individuals or groups that contribute to his or her campaign. Judges must not only be fair, neutral, impartial and non-partisan but also should be so perceived by the public.”
Our courts need to be fair, impartial and independent, and the people of Wisconsin should have full faith in the integrity of the Supreme Court. As citizens of Wisconsin, we all need to take this issue seriously, and join an ever-growing, bi-partisan group supporting the Impartial Justice Bill.
Creating a system of full public financing for these critical races is a far better option than allowing special interests to buy the Supreme Court, giving their issues preference over the rights of average people and removing any shred of impartiality in our judicial system.
Christine Bremer Muggli is the President of the Wisconsin Association for Justice (formerly the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers), Wisconsin’s largest statewide voluntary attorney organization defending the civil justice system. Look for Christine’s columns each month.