This morning, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-2 to end a John Doe investigation into whether ostensibly “independent” groups had illegally coordinated with Scott Walker’s 2012 gubernatorial recall campaign.
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. Their misguided ruling greatly reduces Wisconsin’s legal barriers separating political campaigns from supposedly independent groups, which, post Citizens United, are not subject to campaign finance limits.
“This ruling raises grave concerns about the fairness and impartiality of the court in this case,” said Matt Menendez, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Based on publicly-available information, it is extraordinary that the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to explain how several the justices could, ethically and constitutionally, even rule on this case.”
“This decision effectively eviscerates contribution limits in Wisconsin,” said Daniel Weiner, senior counsel at the Brennan Center. “By limiting the reach of Wisconsin coordination rules to ‘express advocacy,’ for or against candidates, the court has made campaign finance law extraordinarily easy to evade. No other court has gone this far and for good reason — it is a misreading of the law and threatens fair and transparent elections.”
The Brennan Center filed a brief earlier this year urging those justices to consider their recusal obligations in light of U.S. Supreme Court recusal precedent, but only one justice, Ann Walsh Bradley, stepped aside due to a conflict of interest involving her son, an attorney working for a law firm involved in the case.
In 2010, the Wisconsin Supreme Court specifically changed the state's recusal rules in 2010 to exclude “campaign contributions” as a basis for judicial recusal. One of the targets of the investigation, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, helped draft the rule change.
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that tracks political spending, the four justices who ruled in the case received the following election support from the groups who won in today’s decision:
- The Wisconsin Club for Growth reportedly spent $400,000 for Justice Annette Ziegler in 2007, $507,000 for Justice Michael Gableman in 2008, $520,000 for Justice David Prosser in 2011, and $350,000 for Justice Patience Roggensack in 2013.
- The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent an estimated $2.2 million for Justice Ziegler, $1.8 million for Justice Gableman, $1.1 million for Justice Prosser, and $500,000 for Justice Roggensack.
- Citizens for a Strong America spent an estimated $985,000 in support of Justice Prosser.