Last April, Wisconsin had the most expensive Supreme Court election in the state’s history. Candidates and third-party groups spent more than $5.8 million on a campaign that ended with the election of Justice Annette Ziegler, who received 58 percent of the vote. The record spending kicked off a debate about public financing of judicial election campaigns.
In early December, Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who had talked about campaign finance reform in his 2006 re-election race, asked for a special session to vote on what supporters call the Impartial Justice bill. That bill would keep the judicial election system but ban private money from the campaigns, funding the candidates from a pot of public cash. Republicans, who hold the majority in the Wisconsin State Assembly, pushed back, but they were able only to delay the vote until the following calendar year.
“They know this is a slippery slope,” says Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), the State Assembly’s majority leader. “First you introduce public funds for judicial elections, then for state legislative elections, then all state races.”
It’s hard to say just how slippery the slope is. Some states, such as North Carolina, have publicly financed judicial races for years without adopting further reforms. But it’s not hard to read the intentions of Impartial Justice campaigners. “We need campaign finance reform that applies to all state races,” says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “Lawmakers are increasingly dealing with a public who think they’re bought and paid for and hold them in esteem somewhere between used car salesmen and child molesters.”
Reformers became confident that momentum was on their side when controversy swamped the new justice. Ziegler entered office with a pending ethics complaint—filed by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign—linking a single donation to one of her decisions. Since then she’s recused herself from cases involving donors.