Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Out of Control Campaign Spending and Weak Recusal Rules Undermine Wisconsin's Courts

Wednesday – June 2, 2021

Photo from S Bughdaryan on Unsplash 



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Wisconsin, from statehood in 1848 to about a decade and a half ago ago in 2007, had a national reputation for having one of the most respected, impartial, nonpartisan, fair and trusted state court systems in the nation.

Much of this was because there was a generally held belief among Wisconsinites of all political persuasions and ideologies that the courts should be “above politics as usual.” In order to maintain the confidence of the citizenry, judges and justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court had to be scrupulously nonpartisan and impartial and not be perceived as having been compromised by outside lobbying pressure, campaign contributions or other political influence.

For decades, this standard not only survived, but flourished, and as recently as the early 2000’s the Wisconsin Supreme Court was held up by legal experts across the country as the “gold standard” for how justices should be elected and serve once in office in a state supreme court. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals, the 72 county circuit courts and the hundreds of municipal court judges also were perceived as having the highest standards for impartiality, nonpartisanship and fairness. And while Wisconsin legislators fell into public disrepute in the aftermath of the worst political scandal in the state in a century — the legislative caucus scandal of 2001-2002 — the reputation of state courts was enhanced by the way they adjudicated those trials and in their execution of equal justice under the law.

However, the landscape began to shift 14 years ago when outside special interest groups for the first time began to pour millions of dollars into the election of two state Supreme Court justices, one each in 2007 and in 2008. The expenditures made by conservative business organizations, principally the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, proved to be pivotal, particularly in 2008 when an incumbent justice was defeated in a nasty, vicious, scurrilous campaign in which a record amount of money was spent — more than $8 million. It marked only the second time in state history that an incumbent state Supreme Court justice was defeated.

Since then, big special interest money has been the norm in Wisconsin Supreme Court elections, culminating in the most expensive in history in 2020 when Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jill Karofsky defeated incumbent Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and more than $10 million was spent – half of it by outside special interest groups.

And even more alarming, the “cancer” of big money special interest group spending is spreading to lower court elections. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of dollars of ideological, partisan, and out-of-state, conservative special interest money flowed into two Wisconsin Court of Appeals elections – one in northern Wisconsin and another near Milwaukee.

There had really been no recusal standard for justices or for other court judges receiving campaign contributions or benefiting from “independent” spending by outside interest groups prior to 2007 because campaign money was not a significant factor in judicial elections. Then things changed dramatically. In 2009, in reaction to the unprecedented amount of money spent in the 2007 and 2008 elections, the Wisconsin Supreme Court was petitioned to adopt a recusal rule that would force a justice to recuse her or himself from a case in which one of the parties in the case had donated $1,000 or more to a justice, either directly or to an outside special interest group spending in support of that justice’s campaign. It was rejected by a 4 to 3 vote.

The following year, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its controversial Citizens United v. F.E.C. decision, which effectively opened the way for corporations and other outside groups to make unlimited expenditures on behalf of candidates, including judges. Despite this, and shortly thereafter, the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted 4 to 3 to adopt, verbatim, a recusal rule written by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which said that justices could choose whether to recuse themselves from a case but that receiving a campaign contribution of any size from one or more of the parties need not disqualify them from adjudicating the case. This was essentially, no recusal standard at all.

In 2011, the Wisconsin Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker repealed the Impartial Justice Law, which had been enacted in 2009 and had provided full public financing of elections of candidates for the Wisconsin Supreme Court who voluntarily agreed to limit their total spending to $400,000. In 2015, Walker and the Legislature repealed longstanding prohibitions on campaign coordination between candidates and “independent” outside interest groups, thereby effectively eviscerating contribution limits for all elections in Wisconsin and making judicial elections much more partisan.

The result of all these actions has been that much more money, most of it undisclosed and unregulated, is flowing into elections in Wisconsin, including into nonpartisan judicial elections at all levels. It was in this context and very different and new political environment that 54 retired jurists from all over Wisconsin, including two former state Supreme Court justices, petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2017 to adopt strong and clear recusal rules for justices and judges at all levels with specific thresholds that would trigger mandatory recusal. Wisconsin was found to have the fourth weakest judicial recusal rules in the nation and these retired jurists sounded the alarm.

But a conservative majority of five justices voted against conducting any public hearings on the petition and similarly, in April of 2017, by the same 5 to 2 vote the Supreme Court rejected the petition of the retired jurists and kept the current policy of “self-recusal” in place.

In late 2017, Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C., polled Wisconsinites on a number of issues, including two on judicial elections and recusal rules. The answers to the two questions showed that 83% of Wisconsinites strongly or somewhat support greater disclosure of campaign contributions and less spending in judicial elections, while only 10% strongly or somewhat oppose greater disclosure and money. Similarly, 82% of Wisconsinites strongly or somewhat favor the adoption of stronger recusal rules for judges while only 12% strongly or somewhat oppose them. Clearly, citizens in Wisconsin support stronger election campaign finance disclosure, less spending and stronger judicial recusal rules.

Currently, greater spending in judicial elections at all levels and weak recusal rules that compromise the integrity of judges and undermine citizen confidence in the courts have combined to tear down the once highly regarded impartiality and untainted reputation Wisconsin courts held nationally less than two decades ago. Can we reverse this calamitous slide downward and regain the trust of our citizenry?

The answer is yes. By adopting strong recusal rules, reinstituting public financing of elections, limiting campaign spending and enhancing disclosure we can reclaim our courts at all levels. It’s a tall order and big task but one we need to undertake in order to restore fairness and justice for all.

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Guest columnist Jay Heck
For the past 25 years, Jay Heck has been the Executive Director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. He is the chief spokesperson and leads the organization in all facets of its operation.

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Contact: 
Jay Heck
608/256-2686 (office)
608/512-9363 (cell)

Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 Johnson St, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703
www.commoncausewisconsin.org

Read More...


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Unjustifiable, Hyperpartisan Anti-Voter Measures Moving Through Wisconsin Legislature

Tuesday - May 25, 2021


New Pro-Voter Law Firm Providing Wisconsinites with Invaluable Assistance

National experts of all political persuasions, including former President Donald Trump's own Department of Justice, are all in agreement that the November 2020 election was among the most well run, secure, accurate, and fraud and error free of any presidential election on record. While Trump himself tried to undermine the legitimate election results long before last November 3rd, not a single federal or state court in the nation ruled in support of any of the bogus, false claims made by Trump and his minions about election "irregularities," or claims of voter "fraud" and improperly cast ballots -- either at polling places or by absentee ballot.

In Wisconsin last week, an investigation by the Associated Press found that there were just 27 cases of possible voter fraud identified by election officials out of more than 3.3 million votes cast. So far, no charges have been filed against any of those 27 and it's likely many less than 27 will be found to be actual fraud.

Therefore, there is absolutely no justification, legitimate reason or evidentiary basis for making it more difficult for Wisconsinites to vote, other than to gain an unfair partisan advantage in the next election. And yet that is exactly what majority Republicans in both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature have been doing for the last several months and continue to do.

Specifically, the bills that will get a State Senate committee vote on Thursday make it far more difficult and complicated for elderly Wisconsinites and voters with disabilities to be able to cast a vote by absentee ballot and make it more difficult for all Wisconsinites to even be able to request and obtain an absentee ballot. One measure even stipulates that the existence of a pandemic such as COVID-19 is not a justifiable reason for declaring oneself to be "indefinitely confined." Instead, Republican legislators will determine who is sick enough for that diagnosis rather than the voter in consultation with their medical professionals.

Fortunately, Gov. Tony Evers has promised to veto voter suppression measures like this, and the Republicans do not have sufficient majorities in either legislative chamber to override a veto. But they have made it clear that they will continue to push these undemocratic and restrictive measures to appease Trump and his supporters and to gain further partisan advantage in the future.

During the last year, a new Wisconsin law firm formed that works on protecting democracy from threats such as this. Law Forward has actively engaged with Wisconsin citizens and organizations such as CC/WI on issues like voter suppression and on ending partisan gerrymandering, as well as achieving redistricting reform and fair voting maps.

An example of their excellent work is this comprehensive summary and analysis of the anti-voter measures introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature. Law Forward also has issued a thorough and easy to understand explanation of the redistricting process. To receive regular e-mail updates from Law Forward, sign up for their newsletter.

The Wisconsin Legislature should be making it easier for more of its citizens to vote instead of constructing more obstacles -- and without any rational justification other than to gain a partisan advantage.

We know you will join us in this fight and not surrender to the demagoguery, disinformation, and conspiracy theories that are driving this misguided and thoroughly Un American attack on democracy.

On Wisconsin! 
Jay Heck 
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🗣 Your voice is needed. 🗣

Contact your state senator and your state representative and let them know that these anti-voter bills need to be defeated! Your legislators need to hear from you that this attempt to restrict election participation is not acceptable. The bills are moving quickly through the State Senate and Assembly. Take action today. (This form makes it easy to directly contact your legislators.)

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Jay Heck
608/256-2686 (office)
608/512-9363 (cell)

Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 Johnson St, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703
www.commoncausewisconsin.org

Read More...


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Redistricting Reform and Fair Voting Maps Kicking into High Gear

Tuesday – May 11, 2021




Reform Legislation Introduced at
Capitol Rally on May 17th

As you likely know by now, the redistricting process in Wisconsin and nationwide must occur every ten years to reflect shifts in population and we are fast approaching that significant and critical event. Updated census figures will be processed and sent to the states by September 30th and the actual redrawing of state legislative and congressional districts will then take place -- likely before the end of 2021. Whether that process mirrors the very partisan, secretive, unfair redistricting process that occurred in Wisconsin a decade ago -- in 2011 -- or if redistricting will be much more fair, nonpartisan, transparent and reflects the interests of citizens rather than politicians is the question yet to be answered.

But next week, the nonpartisan redistricting process and the fight for fair voting maps will take a big step forward.

On Monday, May 17th, redistricting reform legislation -- that CC/WI first helped devise and advance in 2011 -- that would transform Wisconsin's system to a nonpartisan process modeled after our neighboring state of Iowa, will be formally introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature at an outdoor, socially distanced rally at the State Capitol Building at Noon. On hand and speaking at the event will be the lead legislative sponsors of the reform measure -- State Senator Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) and State Representative Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay). Join with CCWI and our friends in the Fair Maps Coalition at the rally, which will begin at 12 Noon on the State Street side of the State Capitol Building in Madison -- rain or shine!

Click image for more event information

After the May 17th event and the introduction of the legislation and the assignment of bill numbers in each legislative chamber, CC/WI will initiate a massive statewide call to action -- calling on our thousands of members and activists to contact their state legislators to co-sponsor and support the redistricting reform legislation and demand a public hearing and consideration of the measures in the legislative committee to which it has been assigned -- a simple matter of civil respect that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and former State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have denied the citizens of Wisconsin for the last ten years. We will see if new State Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu parrots the arrogance of Vos and Fitzgerald.

One thing that is dramatically different this year than during the 2011 redistricting process is that there will be "alternative" fair voting maps devised and put forward by you, the citizens of Wisconsin, as alternatives to the partisan, secretive maps that Republican legislative leaders are currently devising. In 2011 there was no alternative to the gerrymandered maps. This year, the Peoples Maps Commission is encouraging citizens to engage in the drawing of voter maps starting from the local level so that communities of interest in towns, cities, rural areas and counties in Wisconsin can be reflected in the new voting maps. In 2011 all of this was completely ignored. The Peoples Maps Commission has pledged to draw state legislative districts using non-partisan criteria to counter the expected partisan maps that Vos and Le Mahieu are expected to direct.

There are many opportunities for you to get involved in these map-drawing activities with information and training sessions now underway. Check out these two:

For more information about Fair Maps, and the nonpartisan redistricting process modeled after Iowa's, go here and here.

Thanks for your active participation in protecting democracy in Wisconsin!
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Jay Heck
608/256-2686 (office)
608/512-9363 (cell)

Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 Johnson St, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703
www.commoncausewisconsin.org

Read More...


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Even More Unjustified, Partisan Anti-Voter Measures Are Being Rushed Through Legislature

Wednesday – May 5, 2021

Photo by E Grunze



Testimony of Jay Heck, Executive Director, Common Cause Wisconsin

Wisconsin Senate Committee on Elections, Elections Process Reform & Ethics

May 5, 2021

In Opposition to Senate Bill 203, Senate Bill 206, Senate Bill 209, Senate Bill 212

 

Common Cause in Wisconsin (CC/WI) is one of the state’s largest non-partisan political reform advocacy organizations with more than 8,000 members and activists residing in every county of the state. We have been active in Wisconsin since our founding in 1970.

We oppose four of the measures being considered by this Senate Committee today and urge members of this committee to vote against their passage. All four of these measures would make it more difficult and burdensome for Wisconsinites to be able to cast a ballot during an election. All are extremely partisan and were devised exclusively by members of one political party to attempt to gain partisan advantage in elections and without any consultation with members of other political parties or with nonpartisan election advocacy organizations such as Common Cause Wisconsin.  

Specifically, we oppose:

Senate Bill 203: This bill would prohibit any individual from helping more than one non-family member return their absentee ballot. The bill would limit who can return a voter’s absentee ballot to include only the voter’s immediate family or legal guardian, with very limited exceptions.

  • This bill makes it harder for voters to return their completed ballots to have their votes counted. Voters should have access to needed assistance from trusted friends, neighbors, care providers or community groups. Many voters with disabilities who vote absentee are non-drivers and ask someone they trust to deliver their absentee ballot. If their usual driver has already delivered a ballot for someone, the voter would have to find another way to get it returned.


Senate Bill 206: This bill makes anyone who is indefinitely confined jump through several hoops in order to vote, including the voter making a statement under oath affirming the fact of being indefinitely confined. If the indefinitely confined voter is under 65, that sworn statement would need “to be signed by a physician, physician assistant, or advanced practice registered nurse who has primary responsibility for the treatment and care of the voter.” In addition, the bill specifies that the existence of an epidemic does not qualify a voter as being indefinitely confined, and kicks people off the indefinitely confined list who signed up March 12 thru November 3, 2020.

  • For many elderly and disabled voters and those with preexisting conditions who have been home bound for their own safety because of COVID, this bill is heartless. It would put voters at risk while voting for the duration of this pandemic and during any future pandemic. No other voter must submit a sworn and signed statement under oath such as this requirement sets out to do. This is a crude, blanket invalidation of the status of tens of thousands of voters, and without evidence, it implies that they all misrepresented themselves. This presumption of guilt flies in the face of free, fair, and accessible elections.


Senate Bill 209: This bill would limit absentee ballot drop boxes only to be attached to the building where the office of the clerk is located.

  • This bill increases the difficulty for voters to return their completed ballots and have their votes counted. Reducing the number of drop boxes in high populated areas (particularly Milwaukee, Madison, and other larger cities) that span miles and service thousands of voters to only one box, disadvantages the voters who do not live near the one box. Voters across the state used drop boxes to return their ballots when their clerk’s office is otherwise inaccessible or closed. Legislation should be encouraging more secure options for returning ballots, not fewer.


Senate Bill 212: This measure would require the clerk to mail the defective ballot envelope back to the voter, require the clerk to put a notice of the defect on the voter's voter information page in MyVote, and prohibit a municipal clerk from correcting a defect on the completed absentee ballot certificate envelope. Specifically, the bill would create new felonies in the list of election frauds to punish election officials. 

  • This bill addresses how clerks should act when a voter returns a completed absentee ballot with a defect in the ballot certificate. If a certificate envelope has a defect, the clerk must return the ballot to the elector and post a notification of the defect on the elector's voter information page on MyVote website. However, not all voters can access MyVote and they would be unaware of the problem to make corrections. Additionally, the bill does not make clear if the voter will know the notice has been put in their voter information page on MyVote unless they happen to check the page. Existing law does not require notice of defects; however, the Wisconsin Election Commission guidance encourages clerks to contact the voter directly.
 
  • Mailing a ballot back to the voter within only a few days until Election Day will guarantee the ballot envelope is not returned corrected in time for the vote to be counted. The mail can be slow. There may not be time to return the ballot to the voter and for the voter to send it back, so the vote may not be counted. 
 
  • Currently the clerk may look up the address or contact the voter for information. Existing law allows the clerk to mail the ballot back if there is time for the voter to correct the defect. This is a bad bill in that it will result in many ballots being tossed for information missing on the envelope. AND the bill does not allow for correction of the envelope except by the voter when the ballot and envelope is returned by mail. It does not seem to allow the clerk alternate ways for corrections, like a phone call and a visit to the clerk's office by the voter. While a correction or cure process for absentee ballot envelopes is something that the legislature should consider and undertake, it should not be in the form of this bill. It should give clear instructions so that clerks and voters are able to correct mistakes to ensure all ballots cast are counted. 


In sum, the enactment and passage into law of any of these four measures would have a detrimental effect on Wisconsin voters. There is no credible evidence that any of the restrictions that these measures would place on voting are justified or are needed and all would result in fewer eligible and fully legal voters from being able to cast their ballots. This is voter disenfranchisement of the very worst kind and it is cynical, partisan, and completely unnecessary.

Common Cause Wisconsin respectfully urges Committee Members and the full Wisconsin Legislature to reject these measures.


🗣 Your voice is needed. 🗣

Contact your state senator and your state representative and let them know that these anti-voter bills need to be defeated! Your legislators need to hear from you that this attempt to restrict election participation is not acceptable. The bills are moving quickly through the State Senate and Assembly. Take action today. (This form makes it easy to directly contact your legislators.)

--------------------------

Contact: 
Jay Heck
608/256-2686 (office)
608/512-9363 (cell)

Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 Johnson St, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703
www.commoncausewisconsin.org

Read More...