Posted by PPP Summer Fellow Jonathan Crook
Some pundits in Wisconsin are saying that the state could be the first "laboratory" for the recent opinion given by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said that state judges must recuse themselves from any case in which an actor has given significant money to one of the judges during his or her campaign.
Last year about $6 million dollars were spent by the Wisconsin judicial candidates in total. Much more came from special interest groups, which bought t.v. spots and other advertisements.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision that could help curb this arms race sounds nice, but the vagaries in the language of the opinion, as is often the case, has left a great deal of room for interpretation. Also, as the author of the previously-linked article noted, the specifics of the case that the Supreme Court were dealing with were extraordinary compared to the regular contributions from private individuals, making the ruling that much harder to translate into action.
Even if Wisconsin does not use the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling to keep conflicts of interests out of the courtroom, it still has a backup plan. The Impartial Justice Bill, which is being debated currently in the state legislature, would create a full public finance system for state judicial candidates, funded mainly by a $1-3 checkoff from state tax returns.
We polled Wisconsin voters earlier this week about the bill, and the results were not all that encouraging for those who are seeking its passage. 37% said that they favor the law, 28% said they are opposed, and 34% are still not sure.
Wisconsin is one state in acting in the pattern of a larger trend around the country. State judicial elections are getting more publicized, more expensive, and more malicious. The Supreme Court ruling was a step in the right direction, but we'll see from Wisconsin and other states if it really makes a difference.
Full results from the poll here.