Wisconsin Called ‘Ground Zero of All That Is Wrong’ in Judicial Elections
Justice at Stake: Anti-Prosser Ad Continues Trend of Higher Costs, Harsher Attacks
MARCH 29, 2011—A campaign ad attacking Justice David T. Prosser Jr. is the latest example of Wisconsin’s furious descent into negative politics in state high court elections, Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan national reform group, said today.
“Wisconsin has become Ground Zero of all that is wrong with state supreme court elections in America today,” Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said. “For the third time in four elections, special interest money and character attacks are driving the campaign.”
The most recent ad, by the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee, accused Prosser of failing to aggressively investigate sex abuse allegations against a Catholic priest, while Prosser worked as a district attorney in the late 1970s. Participants in the case have made conflicting statements about Prosser’s role, with one abuse victim defending him, and the ad has been rated as “barely true” by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact column.
In 2008, in one of the most infamous ads ever in a state Supreme Court election, then-Justice Louis Butler was savaged for his legal representation of a murder/rape suspect in 1987, as a court-appointed public defender.
“For the second time in three elections, an incumbent’s alleged soft treatment of a sex offender, long before he took the bench, has trumped any consideration of that justice’s performance on the bench,” Brandenburg said. “Voters will have to decide what weight to give this three-decade-old case. But just five years ago, the current tenor of high court elections would have been unimaginable in Wisconsin.”
From 2000-2006, barely $1.2 million was spent on state high-court elections, and the tone was calm and civil. Since 2007, high court elections in Wisconsin have been taken over by big-money special interests. From 2007-2009, candidates and special interest groups have spent an estimated $10.4 million, much of it on costly, shrill and cynical attack ads.
That parallels a national spending spree on court elections, in which candidates raised $206.9 million in 2000-2009, more than double the $83.3 million raised in the 1990s.
This year, Justice Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg, have accepted public financing, taking them out of the financial arms race, and limiting their campaign ads.
But groups like the Greater Wisconsin Committee, the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce continue to flood the airwaves. According to a report released today by the Brennan Center for Justice, $1.4 million has been spent on TV ads in Wisconsin, with non-candidate special interest groups accounting for 82 percent of the total.
“As Justice Butler’s defeat in the 2008 election shows, negative ads can work, especially against judges who have limited public profile,” Brandenburg said. “But ads like the Greater Wisconsin Committee’s latest attack come with a profound cost, in diminished public respect for our nation’s courts.”
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The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign working to keep America’s courts fair and impartial. Justice at Stake and its 50-plus state and national partners educate the public, and work for reforms to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom—so judges can protect our Constitution, our rights and the rule of law. For more about Justice at Stake, go to www.justiceatstake.org, or www.gavelgrab.org.