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 And it was repealed by the Legislature in 2011.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. email@example.com