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Wisconsin Supreme Court Ends Walker Investigation, Eviscerating State’s Campaign Finance Limits and Raising Questions about Judicial Impartiality

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4–2 to end the investigation into Scott Walker’s 2012 campaign, reducing the legal barriers between political campaigns and independent groups and raising serious concerns about judicial impartiality.

July 16, 2015

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.

For more inform­a­tion, contact Seth Hoy at seth.hoy@nyu.edu or 646–292–8369 and Naren Daniel at naren.daniel@nyu.edu or 646–292–8381.