U.S. Supreme Court Passes on Opportunity to Shore Up Campaign Finance Law, Protect Judicial Integrity

October 3, 2016

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Chisholm v. Two Unnamed Petitioners, an appeal stemming from the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to shut down a years-long investigation into possible illegal campaign spending coordination between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and various “independent” groups during Wisconsin’s 2012 recall election campaign (activities that were recently the subject of an expose by The Guardian).

The appeal took issue with the merits of the Wisconsin court’s ruling, which defied forty years of governing precedent, and also argued that two of the Wisconsin justices should have stepped aside from hearing the case due to conflicts of interest stemming from campaign support they received from groups targeted in the investigation.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which filed an amicus brief in the case, released the following statements:

“When the U.S. Supreme Court swept aside longstanding campaign finance limits in Citizens United, it promised that the millions in new spending it allowed into our elections would be independent from candidates and fully transparent,” said Daniel I. Weiner, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “Neither assurance was accurate, as each new revelation out of Wisconsin shows. The Court had an opportunity here to finally add some teeth to its promises, but it chose to pass. This is further proof that its jurisprudence is simply unworkable, and—one way or the other—will have to change.”

“Justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court benefitted from millions of dollars of campaign spending from the very groups appearing before them in court,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “These kinds of conflicts of interest threaten the public's confidence in the basic integrity of our courts. The U.S. Supreme Court missed out on an opportunity to promote both the appearance and reality of unbiased decision making in states, like Wisconsin, that use elections to select their state judges.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court halted the Walker campaign investigation in 2015.

The Brennan Center’s brief, filed with the Center for Media and Democracy and Common Cause Wisconsin, urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case to address two important issues: First, that states have the power to prevent candidates and outside groups from coordinating their spending in order to prevent corruption; and second, the refusal of two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves, despite clear conflicts of interest, deprived the petitioners of a fair trial, and damaged public confidence in the courts.

Read more background on the case here.

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Rebecca Autrey at (646) 292-8317 or rebecca.autrey@nyu.edu