Former Justice Diaz to speak on high court elections

So you think Wisconsin is the only state whose Supreme Court elections are seeing an influx of special interest money?

Well, it’s not. In fact, it’s getting worse, according to former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, since these groups are learning that it’s a lot cheaper to throw money at a few judge races than it is to back dozens of legislators.

“It’s basically happening everywhere,” Diaz said, adding that this includes Wisconsin. “Judges are elected these special interests groups have decided to go into states that have judicial elections … and try to elect folks who are sympathetic to their positions.”

Diaz, who served on Mississippi’s highest court between 2000 and 2009, will be speaking about this at the Wisconsin Association for Justice’s Winter seminar on Friday in Milwaukee.

The man knows what he’s talking about. One of his elections – in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sought to unseat him because of his opposition to tort reform – is covered in the 2011 documentary “Hot Coffee.”

Diaz said that it took less than a decade for money spent on judge’s elections to top $1 million in Mississippi. And it’s only getting worse, as television and newspaper advertisements are often the only information the general public has about a judicial candidate.

“Judges like to think they’re fairly well-known,” he said. “The truth is judges are not very well-known. So when you do these 30 seconds negative advertising blitzes [on television], they’re very effective in judicial elections.”

And in a way, he said, they are working.

Today, it’s easier than ever to predict the outcome of any higher court’s opinion, since partisan politics are playing a larger role than ever before.

But education is key, he said. Otherwise, the path we are on isn’t going to get better any time soon.

“The dirty secret pundits won’t tell you is it’s not that difficult [to guess a decision] when you know the political makeup of the judges,” Diaz said. “That was not always the case. If you can count to five, you can pretty much decide how a case is going to come out.”

The speech will be at 3:15 p.m. in the seventh-floor grand ballroom of the Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave.

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