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Commentary: Impartial justice or partial justices?

When I sat down to read the “Impartial Justice Bill” (signed into law by Governor Jim Doyle on Dec. 1), which provides government financing for Supreme Court campaigns, my intent was to look at it from a legal perspective.

I just assumed that any legislation supported by the so-called “good-governance” groups will offend me on First Amendment grounds. For better or worse, that’s my mindset going in.

But I never got that far. Instead, I found the bill abhorrent for practical reasons. Just looking at how difficult it would be to qualify for public financing, I was flabbergasted that anybody would support it, regardless of ideology or philosophy.

Consider what a candidate for the court must do to qualify for public financing:

“[Receive] qualifying contributions from at least 1,000 separate contributors who are electors of this state in amounts of not less than $5 nor more than $100 in an aggregate amount of at least $5,000 but not more than $15,000.”

Surely, it cannot improve our legal system to turn our justices into street beggars who have to drum up spare change in amounts of at least $5 but not more than $100 en masse.

Suppose a candidate allots a month to raise the necessary funds to qualify for public financing in five dollar increments. That means 34 donations would have to be generated every day for a month. And if you make a mistake in complying with this process, you face up to ten years in prison.

In return, any candidate who goes through this rigmarole this can get up to $400,000 from the taxpayers for his campaign, plus more, should any private group or citizen dare to exercise their First Amendment rights by making expenditures to oppose the candidate’s campaign.

I understand that the “good governance” groups find it unseemly for judicial candidates to raise money from rich people to finance their campaigns. I do, too. But is it really more seemly for them to perform the fundraising equivalent of selling 1,000 dimebags on a street corner?

Being the campaign manager for a candidate would no longer be a position of honor; it would be like turning tricks in an alley for individual hits of crack cocaine, non-stop, for weeks on end.

Then I realized there is one very easy way to comply with this law without it being a tedious and unwieldy process – enlist the support of the unions.

The union leaders would send thinly-veiled threats to their rank and file, “highly recommending” a “small” contribution of “only five dollars.” Everyone sends a check; and no one returns to his or her car after work to find the tires have been slashed.

And then the campaign gets $400,000 from the taxpayers.

It was clear to me then why the so-called “good governance” groups support the law. They don’t want “impartial justice.” They want Supreme Court justices who are partial to the unions.


  1. Those requirements are absurd. So are the petition requirements. And this bill does nothing to stop so-called “issue ads” where private groups drown out others – typically funded by those who do not live in Wisconsin and those who hate fair play.

    Alas, it also does nothing to stop candidates for the court from bashing lawyers for simply doing their jobs. The last two winners both based their campaigns on bashing lawyers.

  2. Exactly right.

    These plans are custom-made for candidates backed by well-organized interest groups. Not just the unions – environmental groups, right-to-life, the National Rifle Association, etc. That’s how it’s played out in practice in other states, as our research has found:

    We also addressed interest group involvement in helping to raise funds for participating candidates here:

    Sean Parnell
    Center for Competitive Politics

  3. Thanks for the links, Mr. Parnell. I notice you cite our sister publication in arizona in one of them. It’s interesting that, here, the media is all gaga over this ridiculous new law. But where similar laws exist, people have caught on that you can’t comply with these requirementst without getting into bed with the special interests.

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