Wisconsin elects Supreme Court justices, a democratic practice that some folks would like to curtail. The argument for giving the governor — or an elite selection panel appointed by the governor and legislators — the power to choose justices is that this is the best, perhaps the only, way to curtail out-of-control special-interest spending on court contests.

But if Wisconsin starts ending elections in order to eliminate special-interest influence, where does it end?

Doesn’t special-interest money influence races for governor, attorney general, the Legislature and even local offices?

The better response is to make every effort to insulate court races from special-interest spending.

That’s something both Supreme Court Justice Pat Roggensack and her challenger, Marquette University law professor Ed Fallone, say they support. While the pair disagree on just about everything else, they are on the same page in backing public financing of court campaigns.

Wisconsin tried this before, with an Impartial Justice Act that provided some public financing.

Unfortunately, the law did not have enough checks and balances on outside spending — especially in the aftermath of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that removed barriers to corporate spending on campaigns. And it was repealed by the Legislature in 2011.

Should that be the end of it? No.

Reform groups such as Common Cause in Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign argue, correctly, that there are smart ways to address the challenge.

The Democracy Campaign has suggested that, instead of direct public financing, the state should provide incentives for small donors — effectively creating a popular counterbalance to big money.

The proposal came as part of a reform plan with these key features:

• Public matches of small donations if the contributions come from people eligible to vote for the candidate.

• An Election Participation Incentive program providing a $25 tax credit ($50 for couples) for small contributions to candidates the donor is eligible to vote for.

• Sharply reduce the limits on campaign contributions to candidates for state office — cutting in half the allowable donations to legislative candidates and making larger reductions in limits on donations to candidates for statewide office.

• Close the “magic words” loophole in state law — require interest groups to register as political action committees and disclose the amount and source of money spent on campaign advertising and other forms of electioneering, plus comply with contribution limits for PACs.

• Require corporations to obtain a majority of shareholders’ approval to spend corporate funds on political activities. Require the same of cooperative associations.

The Democracy Campaign proposed to apply the reform to elections for Assembly, Senate, governor, attorney general, Supreme Court and all other statewide offices.

But since there seems to be so much agreement that something should be done to address special-interest spending on court races, and since candidates as distinct as Justice Roggensack and Ed Fallone are advocating for reform, this would seem to be the right time to develop a bipartisan reform plan to get big money out of court races.

There is no need to diminish democracy to fix court races. We should make smart reforms that could provide a model for reducing special-interest influence not just in nonpartisan races but in all campaigns.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com

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(3) comments


The problem with all these ideas is that they require candidates to opt-in...and in the end the big money sources are just better and easier. It's why public financing doesn't work - Obama and Romney never gave it two thoughts as to whether or not they would work within those limits.

The constant smoke screen of Citizens United is getting a little stale. Please tell me what corporations donated to (let's pick presidential candidates) in 2012? What you will see is that top execs from companies donated tons of money...and often it is reported together. But I don't think CU did what Nichols thinks it did. It is letting super-rich create the super PACs and now they can directly advocate for a candidate. It allows the super PACs to be more direct.

Sorry John. Wrong again as usual. Our courts should be Non-partisan....period. Best way to prevent our judges and court from becoming more partisan and political is to take politics and campaigns out of the equation. Making our SC contenders chase votes automatically causes them to require donations, and owe payback in return. I don't care how much integrity you have. If you have to ask people to support you financially, you feel you owe them a debt afterward. Of course appointments aren't perfect either, but if you start with a bi-partisan committee you subtract most of the chance for anyone who is polarized to make it thgrough the process. This would automatically generate a ool of appointees slanted toward the middle who have earned their nomination based on their merits and past results. WAY, WAY better than ANY of our recent elected members as they were all severely slanted to 1 side or the other.


There's no lack of good ideas for making elections fairer, government more transparent, politics cleaner, etc. There are a dozen different good-government organizations, all with thotful, constructive ideas like those listed here. In fact, those ideas have been around for years — decades in some cases.

So why haven't they been enacted? Simply put, because the people who would have to do the enacting are the very people who have prospered under the current setup. They're familiar with it, they're comfortable in it, and they're good at it. What's their motivation? To put themselves out of work? Yeah, that's a real tasty carrot, you betcha!

Unless and until some outfit like the Cap Times, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, or Common Cause can come up with some method of implementing these ideas, simply repeating them is, um, spitting into the wind.

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