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Spending on television advertising contracts reached more than $612,000 in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race this week, according to Federal Communications Commission records analyzed by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake. The election will take place next Tuesday, April 7, 2015.
As of March 31, incumbent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley had booked $510,665 in TV ads while the left-leaning Greater Wisconsin Committee, the first outside group to spend in this race and a big spender in past judicial elections, booked TV ad contracts totaling $101,957. The Greater Wisconsin Committee’s ad attacks Rock County Circuit Court Judge James Daley, who is running for Justice Bradley’s seat, for a sentence given to a convicted child abuser.
Although Judge Daley has not booked any television ads to date, public records indicate that he has purchased radio ad buys totaling $108,112, in addition to web ads and yard signs. Judge Daley began the current February-March reporting period with $88,428 on hand and raised an additional $148,557 during latest reporting period. Justice Bradley’s records show that she entered the current reporting period with $352,934 and raised an additional $380,963 during the latest reporting period.
“Although spending in this year’s supreme court race is lower than what we’ve seen in recent years, the need to insulate Wisconsin justices from special interests remains an evergreen issue in the state,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “There is broad public concern that special interest dollars are impacting the decisions that courts make.”
“The entry of an independent spender in this race signals that there’s still time for last-minute advertising to ramp up,” said Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that monitors judicial elections. “The Greater Wisconsin Committee has been a big player in past years. It remains to be seen if traditional big spenders on the right will open their checkbooks for the candidates’ race, or continue to focus on the Question 1 ballot measure.”
On Election Day, Wisconsin voters will also face a ballot measure, Question 1, which would change the state constitution to require the chief justice to be chosen by a vote among the justices themselves rather than by seniority. The chief justice serves as the administrative head of the judicial system, and the position is currently held by Shirley Abrahamson.
Public reports suggest that traditional right-leaning spenders in Wisconsin’s judicial elections are concentrating their efforts instead on Question 1. According to state disclosure reports, a group supporting Question 1, Vote Yes for Democracy, received $600,000 from the Issues Mobilization Council of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which was the sixth-highest spender in judicial races nationwide in 2011–12. Vote Yes has not yet purchased TV ad contracts, but reports spending $189,084 on radio advertising.
Two groups opposing Question 1, Make Your Vote Count and Fair Courts Wisconsin, reported receipts of $80,000 and $3,916 respectively. Make Your Vote Count received its funding from the Greater Wisconsin Committee. Fair Courts Wisconsin is supported by Justice at Stake. Make Your Vote Count has aired radio ads totaling an as-yet unreported figure. Fair Courts Wisconsin has not engaged in advertising.