A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 11, 2011
By Bill Kraus
The Impartial Justice bill, which saw the light of day in a reform-averse Legislature only because all the sitting members of the state Supreme Court urged it on them, was supposed to be the poster child for full public funding. It was designed to get the candidates out of the demeaning money raising business and removing the taint of being beholden to their significant donors. It’s companion piece was intended to diminish the role of interest money in these campaigns as well.
The bill that passed was funded at a modest level which made it kind of good news/bad news for the incumbents. Potential challengers would no longer be daunted by the need to raise a large campaign fund to mount a respectable campaign which could open the floodgates. Advantage challengers. The low level of spending allowed by the candidates would make it very difficult for a challenger to produce and run the TV commercials which are widely considered necessary to get the name recognition they would need to be competitive. Advantage incumbents.
The companion piece which would have used the infusion of additional public money for candidates to offset and disincentivise outside spenders did not become law. It did get past the soon-to-be-dead body of the then-majority leader of the state Senate, but the brain dead or duplicitous also soon to be a dead body speaker of the Assembly put it in the trash can instead of to a vote. The Supreme Court by a 4-3 vote rejected an attempt to bring it in through a side door.
The poster child was still there, but less attractive.
The two survivors of the 2011 Supreme Court primary contest which would test public funding and run campaigns that made these campaigns shorter and maybe even sweeter. This, in turn, would prompt the great majority of voters who say they hate the tenor and cost and endlessness of the campaigns to demand an extension of full public funding to all elections. Full public funding ascendant.
A placid primary which looked like it would lead to an easy victory for the incumbent morphed into something unseen and unanticipated in judicial elections. The outsiders came in with all guns blazing. Some supported the candidates. Most did not. Trashing and demonization dominated the airwaves.
The candidates were outspent and overwhelmed but did their level best to dodge or refute the firestorm of false and exaggerated charges by the outside bomb throwers and stay--er--judicial.
Expectations for the future of Impartial Justice are cloudy at best. The good thing is that those of us who think the election system needs to be repaired are accustomed to celebrating small victories. Despite all the clatter both candidates were spared the indignity of raising the amount of money it would have taken to be financially competitive and the recusal requests that come with taking money from supplicant/donors who appear before the court.
Nonetheless the poster child is pretty banged up. The first clean up is a full disclosure treatment so that the voters know who the outsiders are. If they want to play they should be asked to put prominent upfront labels on the TV commercials that are their main--more like only--weapon, so voters know that these scurrilous outbursts are not coming from the candidates themselves. Those whose money sources or supporter biases are not easily evident (as unions, manufacturers, lawyers, realtors, etc. are) should also be asked to tell the voters where they get their money. They can put in as many chips as they want, but full disclosure should be the price of getting a seat at the table.
Even the freedom-of-speech-crazed-collateral-damage-blind-U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that those who want to play the game can’t do it anonymously. No more blindsiding.
The Legislature has to do its small bit as well and put the modest sum for full public funding that was available to this year’s candidates back in the budget from whence it disappeared. Another letter supporting Impartial Justice from a unanimous Supreme Court would probably make this easier.
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