Gavel Grab

Conservative WI Justices Were Targeted, Wall Street Journal Says

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in July that there were no violations of campaign finance laws by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups in 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Emails tied to the campaign finance investigation that the court quashed keep emerging, and a Wall Street Journal editorial trumpeted some of them this week. The editorial is available by Google searching.

“Today’s installment from court documents concerns how a special prosecutor and regulators at the Government Accountability Board (GAB) targeted the state’s conservative Supreme Court justices,” the editorial says. “The partisan goal was to force some justices to recuse themselves from hearing a constitutional challenge to their probe of Governor Scott Walker and his political allies.” Eventually, no justices recused themselves (see Gavel Grab for background).

The editorial quotes Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz as defending his actions: “‘Looking for information on the justices wasn’t the purpose of the subpoenas but the fact that we had the information doesn’t mean we couldn’t use it.’ He added that he sought the recusal of the conservatives not because of their judicial views but because of ‘the spending on their election campaigns.’”

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Justice Crooks to Retire from Wisconsin Supreme Court

Justice N. Patrick Crooks of the Wisconsin Supreme Court has announced formally he will retire when his term expires next year, after having served 20 years on the state’s highest bench.

Three candidates are in the race to succeed him at this time. They are state Appeals Court Judges Rebecca Bradley and JoAnne Kloppenburg and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

A primary election to winnow down the field to two candidates will be held on Feb. 16, and a general election on April 5. Read more

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Judicial Recusal Debate Still Alive in Wisconsin

Wisconsin_flag_mapA controversy over a decision by two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, who chose not to recuse themselves from participating in a ruling that ended a campaign finance investigation, has not gone away.

Regular Gavel Grab readers will be familiar with the controversy. Now Wisconsin Law Journal has published side-by-side, opposing opinions distributed by Dolan Media Newswires.

Brendan Fischer, general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, wrote an opinion headlined, “PRO: Recusal was only way to go in John Doe.” He based his views on the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Caperton v. Massey and on his view that the John Doe case went further because “the [Wisconsin] justices rewrote the rules to greenlight campaign coordination – not only for gubernatorial candidates like Scott Walker, but also for their own campaigns.” Read more

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Commentary: Prosser Off Base in Declining to Recuse

justice-scalesWisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser relied on weak legal arguments when he declined to recuse himself from a court opinion that shut down a controversial campaign finance investigation, Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign writes at

Prosser recently issued a 15-page explanation of why he declined to recuse (see Gavel Grab). A special prosecutor had asked him and another justice to do so, pointing to spending by several groups involved in the investigation that benefitted the campaigns of Prosser and the second justice.

Rothschild disputes specific legal points cited by Prosser but also looks at the case through the lens of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling about runaway judicial election spending, called Caperton v. Massey: Read more

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Editorial: Weeks Later, Wisconsin Court Recusal Issue Remains

Wisconsin_flag_mapA lengthy Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel editorial, in the wake of a state Supreme Court decision ending a campaign finance investigation (see Gavel Grab), called the court “polarized and dysfunctional” and said a conflict-of-interest issue involving some of its members has not gone away.

Among the important questions remaining, the editorial said, is the following: “Should two of the justices whose campaigns received heavy support from the groups under investigation and involved as litigants before the court have heard the cases?” It said a special prosecutor asked for recusal by Justices Michael Gableman and David Prosser, and they did not step aside from hearing the case.

The editorial urged Gov. Scott Walker to “to show good faith, be true to his past words in support of transparency regarding campaign contributions, and initiate bipartisan action to resolve these questions.” Read more

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Editorial: Campaign Finance Disclosure Law Needed in Wisconsin

In the wake of a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that some critics see as gutting the state’s campaign finance law (see Gavel Grab), a editorial calls on the state legislature to pass legislation to shine a light on political “dark money.”

The editorial criticized the ruling of a “hyperpartisan and politicized majority” of the court, and then urged the legislature to adopt legislation like that passed by some other states to require that so-called dark money groups disclose their larger donors.

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Opinion: Wisconsin Court Rightly Labeled a ‘Political Body’?

A New Yorker commentary by Lincoln Caplan takes a critical look at the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent ruling that quashed a campaign finance investigation involving Gov. Scott Walker, and it suggests the ruling may have national implications.

You can learn more from Gavel Grab about how the issue of judicial recusal was handled in the 4-2 ruling. Caplan wrote this about recusal:  “The highly political nature of the election, or reëlection, of the court’s conservative justices, between 2007 and 2013, and the highly political nature of their rejection of the traditional recusal rule have for half a decade made the court vulnerable to charges that it has become a political body. With their decision to halt a major criminal investigation of the sitting governor, who is running for President, and to do so by gutting the state law regulating campaign finance, the conservatives have confirmed the weight of those charges.” Read more

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Ongoing Debate: Role of Election Spending on WI Court is Examined

As debate continues over a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that quashed a campaign finance investigation involving Gov. Scott Walker (see Gavel Grab), one commentator said it appeared that big-money spending on judicial candidates paid off for conservative groups.

The commentary by Emily Mills in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was headlined, “Money talks in state Supreme Court’s John Doe decision.” She wrote, “It’s an advantage to have money — particularly if you have boatloads of it and want to get the right Supreme Court justices elected to shore up your mission.”

At, meanwhile, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske was quoted as raising some questions about the majority ruling in the 4-2 decision. She characterized as “very strange” language by the majority that quoted some individuals as criticizing searches conducted at their homes, based on news media reports, without there having been any chance for the other side to contest those statements.

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WI Court Ends Campaign Probe; JASC Highlights Recusal Reform

Wisconsin_flag_mapThe Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on Thursday there were no violations of campaign finance laws by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups in 2011 and 2012 recall elections, likely ending a state campaign finance investigation.  Justice at Stake Campaign Deputy Executive Director Liz Seaton made the following statement:

“Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court justices should never have had to find themselves in the position of hearing a case involving groups that spent millions to help elect some of them. When this happens, it goes to the core of current problems plaguing elections of judges. 

“With this newest controversy, the Wisconsin Supreme Court becomes a national example for those urging a serious look at reforms to minimize the influence of money in politics in judicial selection. Where states elect their judges, these reforms must include robust judicial recusal rules.”

Read more

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Kloppenburg to Seek Wisconsin Supreme Court Seat Again

Judge JoAnn Kloppenburg of Wisconsin’s Court of Appeals, who was narrowly defeated in 2011 for a high court seat by incumbent Justice David Prosser, announced on Friday she will run for the high court again.

Newscast Image from 2011

Newscast Image from 2011

She will seek in 2016 the seat currently held by Justice N. Patrick Crooks, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. It is not certain whether Justice Crooks, who is 77, will run for another 10-year term. He told colleagues last year he would not run, but he said in an interview this year he was considering seeking re-election and would decide by this fall.

The 2011 election was viewed widely as a referendum over new curbs on public employee unions spearheaded by Gov. Scott Walker, and it became a “bloody proxy fight for special interests from around the country,” Time magazine reported at the time. The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12, compiled by Justice at Stake and partner organizations, said the contest exemplified a “race to the bottom.” The race was concluded by a recount. Read more

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