Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler is giving back to campaign donors most of the money she received from them during her recent re-election campaign, which she ran unopposed.
A campaign donor and political expert said the move is unusual.
Ziegler is giving her donors the opportunity to get back 70 percent of their donations to her campaign because she spent about 30 percent of what she raised for the race, according to a letter she sent last week.
Ziegler donor John Bentz, of Madison, provided a copy of the letter to the Wisconsin State Journal.
“As I’m sure you know, I ended up not having an opponent this year,” Ziegler wrote. “I am sure because of your commitment and early support is a big reason why I did not draw any opposition.”
Ziegler also wrote that donors have until the end of May to request the portion of their donation back. Otherwise, the money in her campaign will be donated and the account will be closed in June. She did not specify to what cause or where the remaining money would be donated.
Bentz, 91, donated $15 to Ziegler’s campaign in December and said he notified the State Journal about the request from Ziegler because he had “never heard of such a thing.”
“It’s quite amazing,” Bentz said. “I never heard of anything like that before but then again, generally my contributions have been to politicians and ... I’ve never regarded her as a politician, but because of the way things work she still generally has to campaign.”
Bentz also donated money to Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, and Gov. Scott Walker last fall.
Ziegler campaign spokesman Mark Graul said all donors received the letters. He said he didn’t know what kind of response the campaign has received.
UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said he can’t remember another time a candidate returned donations so quickly after a campaign, either.
“This is certainly unusual,” he said. “Sometimes candidates donate unused funds to charity when they retire, but seldom do they donate funds immediately, let alone issue refunds to donors. Normally candidates hold funds in a war chest as a way to prepare for the next campaign.”
Burden said the move might signal that Ziegler is not planning to run for re-election in 2027, when her second 10-year term expires when she is 63, but Graul said it’s typical for Supreme Court justices to close their campaign accounts in between election cycles because of the length of time in between.
“It might also be a way to deflect some of the conflict-of-interest concerns that have been raised about Supreme Court justices hearing cases involving entities who also donated to their campaigns,” Burden said.
Ziegler is one of five conservative- leaning justices who recently voted to reject a petition from former judges to require all judges and justices to recuse themselves from cases involving big donors to their campaigns. Rejecting the petition kept in place rules the court adopted — and Ziegler supported — in 2010 that say campaign donations from people or groups with cases before the Supreme Court are not reason enough to require judges to step aside.
The Wisconsin Justice Initiative, which advocates for impartial courts, in January called for Ziegler to return campaign donations she raised in 2016, before Ziegler knew she was running unopposed, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“Keeping the money ... will increase doubts about your independence and ability to judge fairly,” wrote executive director Gretchen Schuldt.
Graul said Ziegler made the decision simply because the uncontested race did not require all of the money raised ahead of the April 4 election.
Ziegler’s campaign had $284,057 as of March 20, according to campaign finance records.