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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Issue of the Week: Cleaning Up the Supreme Court

Plus Winners and Jerks of the Week

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Anyone who has seen the headlines, watched campaign ads or read John Grisham’s novel The Appeal knows that campaigns for state Supreme Court seats are no longer about which candidate can best decide cases based on the Constitution and the law. No, these campaigns too often are decided by which candidate has the wealthiest supporters. And that’s the main reason our airwaves are flooded with distorted, sleazy and misguided ads during the campaign season.

That’s why Monday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is so extraordinary. The majority decided that a West Virginia Supreme Court justice should have recused himself in a case involving a coal company that spent $3 million to get him elected. The court wrote that there was simply too much money involved for the justice not to appear biased in favor of his benefactors.

Sound familiar?

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) has spent millions on Supreme Court elections in recent years. Most prominently, this conservative business group spent $2 million to help Annette Ziegler win her seat on the state’s highest court. The following year, Ziegler authored a sales tax decision that favored WMC and could have profound negative effects on the state’s coffers. Ziegler should have recused herself, but she didn’t. The state’s top prosecutor, J.B. Van Hollen, could have asked Ziegler to step off the case, but he didn’t. Indeed, Van Hollen has benefited from WMC’s generosity, too. During Van Hollen’s campaign for state attorney general in 2006, WMC spent $2.5 million on ads that attacked his opponent.

The newest state Supreme Court justice, Michael Gableman, was also helped by WMC in 2008, to the tune of $1.76 million in ads, dwarfing other campaign spending. Shockingly, though, the sleaziest ads were run by Gableman himself, and he could— although it’s a slight chance—be kicked off the court for knowingly making false accusations during the campaign. Gableman’s ads were so over the line that at least one attorney is asking him to step aside in his case, saying that Gableman is so pro-prosecution that the defense can’t get a fair hearing in the court.

We hope that Ziegler and Gableman step aside in cases that involve their corporate backers, but we’re sure that it won’t happen voluntarily (especially with the pro-WMC Van Hollen as attorney general). This is why the legislature must write new rules governing state judicial races. Public financing is a good place to start, especially since all of our justices support it. But the court must provide clear and fair guidelines for a judge’s recusal from a case, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has given it a green light to do so. The state Supreme Court is our highest court, and those who decide cases there must follow the highest ethical standards.


Winner of the Week: Mike Tate

Pretty impressive: Mike Tate, who is just 30 years old, is poised to become the next chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin on Saturday. Tate has spent most of his adult life working in Democratic politics, and has served as state director for Dean for America (for presidential candidate Howard Dean), state field director for Falk for Governor (for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk), and regional political director for AFSCME Council 40. The fact that Tate is unopposed for the job speaks to his ability to bridge the many differences of opinion within the party. He is entering the job at an interesting time, with the Democrats controlling the White House, both houses of Congress, the Wisconsin governor’s office and both chambers of the state Legislature. We wish him well in his efforts to promote a progressive agenda at local, state and national levels.


Jerk of the Week:State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen

Conservatives like to argue that throwing money at a problem won’t solve it—unless it’s their problem, that is. State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has been criticizing the state Joint Finance Committee (JFC)—and its Democratic co-chairs in particular—for not giving the Department of Justice (DOJ) all of the money it asked for, even while other agencies, services and even schoolchildren across the state are taking a hit. Van Hollen, a Republican, claims that it’s a partisan attack, and that the DOJ should be exempt from across-the-board cuts.

But legislative leaders aren’t caving in to Van Hollen’s tantrum. Russ Decker, the Senate majority leader, crunched the numbers and found that Van Hollen’s DOJ receives about 16% more funding than it did under his predecessor. The JFC proposes cutting Van Hollen’s budget 2%, to $181 million. And since Van Hollen touted his efficient management style, and returned more than $1.2 million to state coffers during the previous biennium, we’re pretty sure he can run an efficient and effective Department of Justice within his budget.