Wisconsin voters saw a flurry of last-minute television advertising in the run-up to an Election Day that featured two court-related contests: one for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the other a proposed ballot measure to change the selection method of the court’s Chief Justice. Total TV airtime spending topped $1.1 million for both contests, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) files analyzed by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake.
Incumbent Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who defeated challenger Judge James Daley in last night’s election, spent more than $570,000 on TV airtime, according to FCC files. The left-leaning Greater Wisconsin Committee also bought TV airtime for ads opposing Judge Daley in the amount of $170,000. Daley did not run television ads, focusing instead on radio and other outreach.
Voters also passed a constitutional amendment to change the way the court chooses its Chief Justice — from a seniority system to a vote among the justices. The amendment, which will likely result in the demotion of current Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, sparked an unusual showdown between two groups that have long been rivals in Wisconsin Supreme Court elections.
Vote Yes for Democracy, a group wholly funded by the business-oriented Issues Mobilization Council of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, spent a total of at least $250,000 on TV bookings supporting Question 1, according to public records. Make Your Vote Count, a group wholly funded by the Greater Wisconsin Committee, spent a total of at least $115,000 on TV bookings, according to the same files.
“While spending in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race was lower than what we’ve seen in recent years, the election was still defined by negative ads and accusations of partisanship on both sides,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Politicized elections put public confidence in the fairness of Wisconsin’s courts at risk.”
“The ‘court wars’ in Wisconsin aren’t going away, although this year they shifted to a different battlefield,” said Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that advocates for fair courts. “This was an unusual judicial election year in the state, because some of the sky-high spending we’ve seen in candidate elections in the past was absent. But we did see this increased interest in a court-related ballot measure, with some of the traditional spenders deciding to put their money there instead.”
Television ads run by the Bradley campaign included one in which she said partisan interests have no place in the courtroom, and another that was critical of a sentence given by Judge Daley to a convicted child abuser. An ad by the Greater Wisconsin Committee opposing Judge Daley cited the same case.
The Daley campaign previously disclosed radio ad buys totaling $108,112 through March 23, 2015. In one radio ad, Judge Daley touted his experience; another accused Justice Bradley of being an “activist” judge. Further disclosures of expenditures were not required prior to Election Day.
Fair Courts Wisconsin, a group opposing Question 1, did not engage in advertising. It received support from Justice at Stake.