Gavel Grab

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Campaign Giving Limit On Way Out in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s limit of $10,000 for the aggregate sum a donor can give to all political candidates in a year appears destined for history as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling (see Gavel Grab).

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that state election officials said in federal court proceedings they could no longer enforce the limit. Mike McCabe of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Justice at Stake partner organization, said the decision is “going to vastly increase the power of a few hundred donors.”

In another state development tied to campaign finance laws,  the California legislature finished its approval of legislation that the Los Angeles Times said “would force nonprofit groups and others to disclose the true source of large contributions to California campaigns.”

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Union donations and judicial recusal in Wisconsin

As the Wisconsin Supreme Court prepares to rule on a challenge to the state’s “Act 10,” which seeks to dismantle collective bargaining for most public workers, academics and interest groups are debating whether any of the justices should have to recuse themselves because they received campaign donations from public sector unions.

The Act, passed in 2011, was challenged by unions, who argue that its labor restrictions violated the state constitution.  A Circuit Court judge agreed in 2012, and the case is now under consideration by the Supreme Court.

Wisconsin’s rules requires judges to bow out of certain cases where their impartiality can be questioned.  The Journal Sentinel reported on calls for recusal, along with the opinions of some legal scholars who stated that the donations in question were so small in relation to overall campaign spending that they may not require recusal.

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Expert Opinion Divided on Possible Recusal by Wisconsin Judges

630px-Seal_of_WisconsinChallenges to a campaign finance investigation in Wisconsin are continuing to spur questions as to whether certain state Supreme Court justices ought to recuse themselves, and one of the state’s leading newspapers now has reported on the issue.

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reporter Patrick Marley has written a news article headlined, “John Doe probe raises issues of potential conflicts with justices.” Marley interviewed legal ethics experts and found divided opinion as to whether one or more of the court’s four conservative justices ought to step aside.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth is one of the targets of the investigation, which is looking at possible illegal coordination between outside groups and recall campaigns (see Gavel Grab). In recent years the group has spent about $1.8 million in support of election of the four conservative justices. Read more

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Editorial Urges Appointment of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices

sealIn Wisconsin, site of an ongoing investigation of possible illegal coordination between outside groups and recall campaigns, the campaign of Gov. Scott Walker has asked the state Supreme Court to bypass lower courts and intervene in the investigation.

Now an editorial in the Beloit Daily News suggests a specter of a potential conflict of interest is raised by this latest development, because conservative justices on the high court “have received support totaling several million dollars from some of the groups apparently involved” in the “John Doe” investigation, as the probe is called.

Rather than hammer at the justices for them to recuse — which the editorial says is a decision for each of the jurists — it renews a call for a shift to the appointment of Supreme Court justices through a merit selection process, from the current election of these judges. It says the court should be an “honest referee”:

“No campaigns. No trolling for dollars. No questions about favors owed to donors. Read more

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Wisconsin Communities Join National Call to Overturn Citizens United

Numerous Wisconsin communities, including Gov. Scott Walker’s hometown and other Republican strongholds, have passed referendums opposing Citizens United.

The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch reports that 41 Wisconsin communities have called for a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and related cases that opened the floodgates to unlimited election spending.

“It puts good people in both parties in a difficult situation. I always thought that businesses did not have a significant voice and that their voices should be heard in the public square,” retiring Republican State Senator Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) said during a recent public forum. “Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think businesses would buy the public square.”

Nationwide, 16 states and over 500 municipalities have passed resolutions urging Congress to amend the constitution to limit money’s influence over politics.

Wednesday’s McCutcheon v. FEC ruling will allow more money into politics, enabling a small number of super-rich donors to give as much as $3.6 million to candidates and parties in a single election cycle.

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Wisconsin Budget Cuts Affect Innovation in Court Programs

military-budget-cuts_bonabeau_1.2012Innovation for state courts in Wisconsin is stymied by a cut of $17.6 million in the biennial budget for the judiciary, an Appleton Post-Crescent article says.

“The court system is facing unprecedented cuts, and the level of court system budget reductions will continue to have consequences,” Director of State Courts A. John Voelker said. “Left unaddressed, the funding issues will begin to affect the court system’s ability to effectively serve the people of Wisconsin.”

Fewer national experts will be able to come to Wisconsin and address state jurists as one result of the cuts. As an example of the kind of innovation fostered through Office of Judicial Education programming, the article mentioned an initiative in Outagamie County to have commissioners set bond for criminal defendants based on evidence-based risk analysis rather than on a judge’s experience and instincts.

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Conflict of Interest to Face Several Wisconsin Justices?

630px-Seal_of_WisconsinA potential conflict of interest may be ahead in a proceeding before several Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, yet they have no obligation under existing law to recuse themselves, Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress writes in a ThinkProgress blog.

Corriher writes: “A criminal probe in Wisconsin targets several major spenders on state supreme court races. Yet the justices who benefited from that spending will likely get to decide whether this probe moves forward.” The secretive investigation focuses on GOP candidates in 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin recall elections and interest groups that backed them with spending.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth and Citizens for a Strong America are among targets of the investigation, according to the blog post. In 2011, they spent more than $1 million in support of incumbent Justice David Prosser who was seeking reelection, the post said, based on data from the Brennan Center for Justice. The Brennan Center is a JAS partner organization.

A Forbes blog post picked up on the ThinkProgress report and declared in its headline about judicial elections, “The Second Worst Idea in American Politics.”

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Wisconsin: Focus on Special Interest Money in Judicial Elections

Special interest money is finding its way into Wisconsin judicial elections from sources that are trying to hide their real motives.

That was the topic of a meeting of the Wisconsin Association for Justice (WAJ), who gathered to discuss judicial reform.

According to an article in The Capital Times, the massive money is not coming from local law enforcement groups who might think a judge is too soft on crime or from civil liberties groups who may believe a judge doesn’t respect due process.

The article says that in Wisconsin, groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce are spending money to make it harder for plaintiffs to sue corporations, while using other issues to mobilize public sentiment against judicial candidates.

Money in judicial elections in Wisconsin comes from both sides of the aisle, and there are different ideas on what, if anything needs to change about the system.

Brandon Scholz, a lobbyist who has managed a number of conservative judicial campaigns, dismissed the argument that judicial campaigns have necessarily changed for the worse. Comparisons to judicial elections from decades ago are inappropriate, he told the newspaper.

WAJ president Chris Stombaugh said his group has not taken a position on a constitutional amendment the bar association proposed for reforming Supreme Court elections, where justices would be elected to a single 16 year term, and could not be reelected.

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‘New Politics’ Report Gets Media Attention in Wisconsin

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, whose saga of being targeted by big special interest spending in a judicial election has captured widespread attention, was to address a Wisconsin audience on Monday. In the run-up to his speech, WUWM radio aired a report saying Wisconsin’s judicial elections are among the nation’s nastiest and citing Justice at Stake as its source.

The “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12″ report featured Wisconsin’s court elections as a case study, WUWM recounted, and the report “says the politicization and influence of outside money is undermining public confidence in the court.”

“When people have a perception that justice can be bought or sold, it undermines the whole system of our courts – our system of impartial justice,” former Justice Diaz says. His story has been told in a documentary and it inspired a novel by John Grisham.

The “New Politics” report was recently released by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

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Wisconsin: Two Justices Lobbied State Legislators

Two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices contacted state legislators earlier this year to signal support for a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way the Chief Justice is selected. Justice Patricia Roggensack, one of the two who voiced support, could benefit from the change.

The (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel reported the developments, saying it is permissible for justices to lobby the legislature “but doing so runs the risk of deepening an already yawning rift on the court.”

Wisconsin’s chief justice currently is Shirley Abrahamson. Democrats and Republicans have divided over the legislation. Democrats contend the action is aimed at removing  Justice Abrahamson, who has held the post for 17 years. Republicans say it would be better to have the Supreme Court’s members choose the Chief Justice, rather than have the justice with the greatest seniority hold the top post, as is now the law. Read more

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