#CampaignFinance Spotlight: Outside Group Starts Spending in Wisconsin Supreme Court Primary

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A conservative interest group has started running issue ads in the primary race to fill a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The group, the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, has booked contracts totaling $234,660, according to an analysis of public FCC records by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

The newly-created 501(c)(4) social welfare group, which is not required to disclose its donors, is running issue ads backing Justice Rebecca Bradley’s bid for a full 10-year term on the court, according to media reports.

Also according to media reports, the group plans to spend more than $400,000 on the state Supreme Court primary. No other groups or candidates have yet purchased ad time, although a spokesperson for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has indicated to Wisconsin media that the group plans to spend in this year’s Supreme Court election as well.

Outside spending has become increasingly prominent in judicial elections. In 2013-14, outside spending by interest groups on both sides of the aisle accounted for a record 29 percent of total spending in state Supreme Court elections, according to Bankrolling the Bench, a joint report by the Brennan Center, Justice at Stake, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In Wisconsin, outside groups were responsible for 45 percent of total spending in 2013.

“Outside groups have pumped record amounts of money into judicial elections in recent years, including in Wisconsin, but weak disclosure laws often leave the public in the dark about who’s behind the spending,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and a co-author of Bankrolling the Bench. “This is the first ad buy of 2016, but it certainly won’t be the last. As special-interest groups spend six and seven-figure dollar amounts to shape the courts, Americans should know where, and who, the money is coming from.”

“‘Game on’ in Wisconsin, where an outside interest group is spending hundreds of thousands at the primary stage to support a judge for a decade-long term on the bench,” said Liz Seaton, Interim Executive Director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks judicial election spending. “Wisconsinites should be asking: who is this group, what does it want, and will its backers appear before the state Supreme Court in coming years?  Context is key, and Wisconsin has a long history of expensive and politicized elections for its high court. It’s important to keep in mind that courts should be fair and impartial institutions that serve people well.”

This is also the first judicial election since the state’s high court ended an investigation into whether ostensibly “independent” groups had illegally coordinated with Scott Walker’s 2012 gubernatorial recall campaign. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling reduced the legal barriers separating campaigns from supposedly independent groups. The decision sparked controversy because each of the four justices who ruled to toss out the investigation heavily benefited from campaign spending from the groups under investigation during their own elections for judicial office.

Gov. Scott Walker tapped Bradley for an interim appointment after Justice Patrick Crooks died in 2015. State Court of Appeals Judge Joanne Kloppenburg and Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Joe Donald are facing Bradley in the primary. The candidates who finish first and second will face each other in the general election April 5.

 

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