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Federal judge upholds campaign finance law (UPDATE)

A federal court in Wisconsin upheld the state’s Impartial Justice Act which provides for public financing of state Supreme Court elections.

William Conley

William Conley

In his decision on Thursday, District Court Judge William Conley ruled that the law did not infringe on free speech rights, as alleged by the primary plaintiff in the case, Wisconsin Right to Life.

Primary defendants in the case were members of the Government Accountability Board.

Conley stated that the relationship between the plaintiffs’ speech and the award of supplemental money is “too speculative, indirect and watered down” to warrant an injunction of the law less than a week prior to Tuesday’s election.

Conley went on to state that his reasoning for granting summary judgment to the defendants and denying injunctive relief was due to the increasing perception that significant spending on high court races somehow influences the decisions of justices.

“In light of the of the State’s undeniable, compelling interest in avoiding a growing perception that the financing of election of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices is irreparably tainting them with an appearance of bias, this court will grant summary judgment to the defendants and deny any injunctive relief.” Conley wrote.

The ruling is good news for Supreme Court candidates running in this year’s race. Incumbent David Prosser and assistant attorney general JoAnne Kloppenburg both opted for public financing which granted them $100,000 to spend during the primary and another $300,000 leading up to the general election.

Attorney Jim Bopp, who represented Right to Life, called the decision “surprising and disappointing,” especially given the March 28 interaction between U.S. Supreme Court Justices during oral argument in a case regarding Arizona’s Clean Elections law, which also provides public financing for judicial candidates.

At stake is whether Arizona is entitled to give candidates who choose public financing the benefit of matching money to offset the fundraising of their privately funded competitors and the political spending of independent interest groups.

On several occasions, members of the court displayed a keen interest not only in the rights of privately funded candidates, but also those of independent expenditure groups.

Some groups, said Justice Samuel Alito, would be “willing to suffer the consequences” of prompting the funding candidates with positions they dislike, while others would be obviously dissuaded from making expenditures that could ultimately do more harm for their issues than good.

“I was really surprised with the ruling, given the Supreme Court’s hostility over the law enacted in Arizona,” Bopp said.

In addition to his ruling on the Right to Life case, Conley also dismissed a separate case challenging the Impartial Justice Act filed by former state Supreme Court candidate Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Randy Koschnick.

Koschnick ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson in 2009.

His attorney, Jim Troupis said they plan to continue efforts to have the law abolished, although the Madison-lawyer said nothing would be done prior to the April 5 election.

“We’re not going to sit idly by on the question of whether this law will survive,” Troupis said. “That you can be assured of.”

Troupis said he may appeal the ruling or file an amended complaint.

“We’re obviously disappointed, because this opinion and the accompanying opinion don’t seem to give the appropriate deference to the First Amendment as opposed to what regulators want to do,” he said.

Dolan Newswires’ Christian Palmer also contributed to this report.

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