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Wisconsin Supreme Court Race: $1.3 Million in Spending, Partisan Political Rhetoric

True to the recent history of Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin, this year’s race for an open seat on the Court is on pace to see more than $1.3 million in spending.

February 16, 2018

True to the recent history of Supreme Court elec­tions in Wiscon­sin, this year’s race for an open seat on the Court is on pace to see more than $1.3 million in spend­ing. Dark money groups, which conceal their donors from the public, are a major factor. Notably, Wiscon­sin Manu­fac­tur­ers & Commerce, the dark money group at the center of the “John Doe” invest­ig­a­tion into allegedly illegal coordin­a­tion between outside groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign, has already spent more than $320,000 on TV ads support­ing Judge Michael Screnock. Wiscon­sin will hold the primary for the state supreme court vacancy on Tues­day, Feb. 20.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is track­ing tele­vi­sion, radio, and digital ad spend­ing in the race. We found:

  • Candid­ates have already raised a combined $1.31 million, accord­ing to their filings posted this week. In the 2015–2016 cycle, more state supreme court justices than ever – 27 in total – were elec­ted in races that saw more than $1 million in total spend­ing.
  • TV and radio spend­ing has reached $744,470, accord­ing to FCC filings through 7 a.m. Friday, more than half of which – $395,902 – comes from outside groups, and all of that outside spend­ing comes from groups that conceal their donors from the public. Nation­ally, 82 percent of spend­ing by outside groups in state supreme court elec­tions was nontrans­par­ent in 2015–2016.
  • Candid­ates are emphas­iz­ing national polit­ical themes in a manner more common in party polit­ics than court races – in her first ad, Judge Rebecca Dallet contras­ted herself with Pres­id­ent Trump, and a new ad from Tim Burns says that Burns will be, “a justice with the cour­age to take on [Gov.] Scott Walker.”

“State supreme courts play a vital, inde­pend­ent role as a check on the partisan excesses of the elec­ted branches,” said Douglas Keith, coun­sel in the Bren­nan Center’s Demo­cracy Program. “When they’re forced to soli­cit massive sums from special interests, or run on the hot polit­ical issues of the moment, their abil­ity to neut­rally and effect­ively inter­pret the law is affected.”

“Wiscon­sin­ites are already being subjec­ted to tens of thou­sands of dollars-worth of dark money polit­ical messages from outside special interest groups, like Wiscon­sin Manu­fac­tur­ers & Commerce,” said Jay Heck, exec­ut­ive director of Common Cause in Wiscon­sin. “The combin­a­tion of this dark money spend­ing – which will accel­er­ate lead­ing up to April 3rd – and the lack of strong recusal rules, combine to under­mine the fair and impar­tial render­ing of genu­ine justice for citizens in this state,” Heck added.

Detailed ad spend­ing data for indi­vidual candid­ates and groups, includ­ing spend­ing estim­ates, ads, and story­boards provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, can be found on the Bren­nan Center’s Buying Time: Wiscon­sin 2018 webpage.

For national trends, read Who Pays for Judi­cial Elec­tions?, the latest in the Bren­nan Center and National Insti­tute on Money in State Polit­ics’ Polit­ics of Judi­cial Elec­tions series.