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Special Interests Dominate Wisconsin Airways in High Court Race

Press release reporting on WI Supreme Court candidates sponsoring only 5 percent of television campaign ads.

March 21, 2008

For Immediate Release March 20, 2008


Laura MacCleery of the Brennan Center, 212–992–8637

Jesse Rutledge of Justice at Stake, 202–588–9454

Rachel Weiss of the Institute on Money in State Politics, 406–449–2480

Special Interests Dominate Wisconsin Airwaves in High Court Race

Candidates Sponsoring Only 5 Percent of Television Campaign Advertisements

NEW YORK – One year after a record-breaking battle for a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, rival interest groups are once again fueling a bruising and costly high court campaign. In fact, interest groups are spending more than nine times as much on television advertising as the candidates’ campaigns combined.

Estimates of network television advertising expenditures obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law show that, with the state’s high court election still two weeks away, Wisconsin has already seen more TV ads in this race than appeared in the entire election cycle in 8 of 10 states with TV ads in 2006. Between Feb 20 and March 16, Wisconsin voters witnessed 4,789 campaign ads, costing an estimated $1,580,793. Third-party groups have blanketed the airwaves, whereas Justice Louis Butler and Judge Michael Gableman combined to spend just $86,938 on advertising during the period.

“Massive spending by special interest groups puts judicial candidates in an impossible position: either candidates are defined by moneyed outsiders, or they are forced to dial for dollars in order to compete. Neither scenario promotes confidence in the courts,” said Laura MacCleery, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center.

“Wisconsin’s judicial campaigns are setting a new national standard for ugly ads and mindless political warfare,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, a Washington-based nonpartisan group that tracks judicial politics. “Courts are supposed to be accountable to the law, not political operatives.”

The biggest spender on advertising overall so far is the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which has spent $408,293 supporting Justice Butler. The Wisconsin Club for Growth, which spent $400,000 on ads supporting now-Justice Annette Ziegler in 2007, has already spent $384,732 on an ad emphasizing Gableman’s experience as a former prosecutor.

Many of the ads have been criticized as misleading and unseemly. For example, in an ad that began airing only on March 14th, Judge Gableman attacked Justice Butler for his work on a criminal case without actually noting that Butler was serving as publicly appointed defense counsel in the matter and representing a client. The Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee (WJCIC) slammed Gableman’s ad, describing it as marked by an “offensive, race-baiting style reminiscent of the Willie Horton spot from the 1988 presidential race.”

Meanwhile, an ad sponsored by the Greater Wisconsin Committee criticizes Gableman’s handling of a number of child sexual assault cases. The WJCIC called the ad “completely useless,” saying that the claims made “were not substantiated or put into meaningful context.”

Wisconsin voters remain concerned about increased spending in judicial elections and protecting the fairness and impartiality of the state’s courts. According to a poll conducted by American Viewpoint on behalf of the Justice at Stake campaign in January 2008, Wisconsin voters strongly support a proposal to reform Supreme Court elections, with 65 percent backing a plan to offer public financing to qualified candidates and only 26 percent opposing it. The survey also reveals that Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly agree (77 percent) that the legislature and the governor need to take action on judicial campaign reform before the next election.

The Brennan Center, the Institute on Money in State Politics and the Justice at Stake Campaign are regular collaborators in tracking the influence of money, television advertising and special interest groups in America’s state judicial election campaigns.

This news release is the first in a series of periodic updates that the groups plan to issue throughout the 2008 election campaign.

PDF available here.