Judges are supposed to be accountable only to the law and the constitution. But recent Wisconsin Supreme Court elections have made it clear that wealthy interests aim to take control of state courts and bend justice to serve their purposes.
A Crisis of Confidence in Our Courts
A national Republican polling firm, American Viewpoint, surveyed public opinion in Wisconsin in January 2008 and found only 5% of state residents believe that campaign contributions to judges do not influence decisions, while 78% believe they do influence decisions. The rest were unsure. A national independent polling firm, Belden Russonello and Stewart polled Wisconsin residents in May 2008 and found nearly half (47%) believe judges' decisions are based on politics and special interest pressure, while 50% believe rulings are based on facts and the law.
The Public is Worried for Good Reason
Wisconsin has been electing its Supreme Court for over 150 years. For a century and a half, this system produced a high court that earned the public's trust and confidence. But recent high court elections shattered the mold.
Outlandishly expensive. The 2007 race was four times more expensive than any past race. The 2008 election was even more expensive than 2007. About $12 million was spent on the last two races. At least $8 million of that—two out of every three dollars—was spent not by the candidates but by five special interest groups. In the 2008 race, 90% of the TV advertising was done by four groups.
Overtly partisan. The campaigns were run by party operatives. The campaign fundraising lists resembled those of candidates for statewide partisan offices.
Downright nasty. Advertising was often highly misleading and sometimes downright untruthful. And it was unrelentingly negative and filled with personal attacks.
“In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prizefights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution.” —former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
There Is a Way Out.
All seven members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court signed a letter supporting the idea of public financing of contests for the high court.
The public wants publicly financed Supreme Court elections.
American Viewpoint found that 65% support it, and after hearing arguments both for and against the idea support went up to 75%. Belden Russonello and Stewart's polling found that 85% believe public financing would make a difference and 54% believe it would make a “big difference.”