Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects request from 56 judges to address judicial campaign cash

The court didn’t even hold a public hearing about it.

Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), second from right, greets Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson after the governor’s State of State address at the State Capitol, Feb. 1, 2011, in Madison, Wis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Manis
Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), second from right, greets Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson after the governor’s State of State address at the State Capitol, Feb. 1, 2011, in Madison, Wis. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andy Manis

On Thursday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected a petition from 56 ex-judges to reform their ethics rules to prohibit judges from hearing cases involving their campaign donors. The court refused to even hold a public hearing on the issue.

The court has been the target of intense criticism since it shut down a campaign finance investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign in 2015. The investigation involved several big business groups, including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), that spent a total of $10 million to elect the court’s conservative majority.

The court’s ethics rules say that campaign cash can never be the sole basis for a judge’s recusal. This rule was literally written by WMC and another group that spent big to elect the justices. The rule proposed in the petition would have required judges to sit out cases involving donors who gave their campaigns above a certain amount.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court dismissed the petition, even though one justice noted that the court had never received so many comments in support of a rules change. The petition received support from Wisconsin editorial boards, bipartisan campaign finance reform groups, and voters.

The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a letter opposing the petition. The group claimed that campaign donors have a “first Amendment right to speak — and to associate — in favor of the candidates they prefer,” and it said the proposed rule somehow violated this right, even though it placed no restrictions on contributions. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s Due Process requirement is violated when campaign contributions to a judge raise a “serious risk of actual bias” on the judge’s part.

The judges’ petition cited a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress that assessed recusal rules in the 39 states that elect their supreme court justices. Only two of those states scored lower than Wisconsin, when it comes to keeping judges from hearing cases involving campaign donors.

The amount of money in supreme court races is increasing with each election cycle. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which supported the petition, independent groups that are unaffiliated with judges’ campaigns spent a record $20 million nationwide in the 2015–16 election cycle. Although a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice ran unopposed in an election earlier this month, the court’s April 2016 election saw $2 million in spending by “dark money” groups, including one with ties to the Koch brothers.

One of the judges who signed the petition noted, “When even the most scrupulous judge hears a case involving his or her campaign contributors, the risk of both real bias, and the perception of bias, threaten the integrity of the judiciary.”

If this proposed rule had been in place in 2015, the Wisconsin Supreme Court would likely have been unable to rule in the Walker campaign finance case, due to the glaring conflict of interest. In addition to all the campaign cash, prosecutors suspected that two of the justices’ campaigns committed the same offense as the Walker campaign by running their campaigns through dark money groups.

Polls show that the vast majority of voters, nationally and in Wisconsin, think that campaign cash is a problem and that it can influence a judge’s rulings. The state supreme court, however, seems to have no interest in shoring up confidence in the courts by keeping judges from ruling on cases involving campaign donors.

Billy Corriher is the Deputy Director of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.

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