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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Best Court Money Can Buy

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The wealthiest corporations inWisconsin now have the best state Supreme Court money can buy. How are you enjoying it so far?

How do you like the Wisconsin Supreme Court giving a humongous $265 million tax refund to the richest companies in the state that you, as an ordinary taxpayer, are going have to cover out of your own pocket?

And that’s just the beginning. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business lobby, spent about $4 million to buy the last two Supreme Court elections. More than $2 million of that was spent to elect the ethically challenged Annette Ziegler last year. Brazenly, Ziegler wrote last week’s decision granting WMC members their $265 million tax windfall.

On a court with ethical members, a Supreme Court justice whose campaign received more than $2 million in support from an organization filing a brief on one side of a case would be expected to recuse herself from participating because of the blatant conflict of interest. But, then, no one who has followed Ziegler’s legal career would expect her to act ethically.

This is the woman who, as a Washington County judge, failed to recuse herself from presiding over 46 cases involving West Bend Savings Bank even though her husband was a paid member of the bank’s board of directors—and even though she and her husband had received a $3 million loan from the bank. Ziegler presided over hundreds of other cases involving companies in which she owned stock, choosing neither to withdraw nor to publicly disclose her financial conflicts of interest.

The $2 million the WMC spent to elect Ziegler looks like chicken feed when it quickly pays dividends of $265 million.

The case involved companies challenging the state Revenue Department’s collection sales taxes on specialized software purchased by Wisconsin companies. When the WMC owns the Wisconsin Supreme Court, sales taxes don’t have to be paid by wealthy corporations. Sales taxes only have to be paid by ordinary saps like you.

Unbelievably, this isn’t even as bad as the Wisconsin Supreme Court is going to get. The latest justice bought and paid for by the WMC—Michael Gableman—hasn’t even taken the bench yet.The sales tax case was one of the final decisions participated in by Justice Louis Butler, the court’s only African American, who also was targeted by the WMC.

In the 4-to-3 decision to shower $265 million in tax refunds on WMC members, the three dissenting justices were Butler, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, the only members of the court who have not received substantial financial support from the WMC.

The WMC defeated Butler with Gableman, a small-time judge with very meager experience and no apparent qualifications.Yet we already know exactly how he is going to rule on cases involving wealthy corporations in our state.

Taxes will continue to be shifted from the wealthy to those of us who do not have the financial wherewithal to purchase our own Supreme Court justices.

Buying elections has worked so well for the WMC that you can bet they’ll spend millions more to try to defeat Abrahamson next April. Why settle for a mere majority on the court? Why not go for the whole kit and caboodle—unanimous decisions to repeal all corporate taxes, pollution controls, union protections and safety standards?

Elections For Sale

How did we allow elections to the state Supreme Court to get so brazenly subverted by money? Elections to the court were always there for the buying. Few voters in Wisconsin have any idea who’s even on the state Supreme Court. Few know where the justices stand or whom they represent.

Even during the elections to the court, incumbents and challengers refuse to tell voters how they will rule on cases that come before them. Even the grossly unethical candidates supported by the WMC pretend they are nonpartisan, objective and have absolutely no opinions on issues that any one else with a brain would have very strong opinions about.

Since they can’t be honest with the voters about where they stand, the candidates resort to code words and inflammatory images. The WMC figured out that if you put millions of dollars behind those words and images, you could successfully manipulate a statewide election where voters know or care very little about the candidates. Gableman’s own campaign set a new low by using openly racist images against Butler. We can’t force people to care about elections.

But we can stop the sleazy buying of our court. There’s nothing democratic about elections where issues aren’t discussed and justices are openly bought.

Put the state Supreme Court above electioneering just like the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices should be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this www.expressmilwaukee.com