Spending in Supreme Court Race Enters Uncharted Territory

In this update: 1. Record amounts raised in high court race 2. Protecting Wisconsin’s courts from special interest pressure 3. Minnesota exploring different approach to judicial reform Spending in Supreme Court Race Enters Uncharted Territory

Email date: 3/27/07

In this update:
1. Record amounts raised in high court race
2. Protecting Wisconsin’s courts from special interest pressure
3. Minnesota exploring different approach to judicial reform

Campaign finance reports filed yesterday covering election activity through March 19 showed as expected that fundraising and campaign spending in the state Supreme Court race have reached record-setting levels.

Candidates in the race have spent nearly $1.5 million, with finalists Annette Ziegler and Linda Clifford so far spending $828,889 and $605,914, respectively. A third candidate, Joe Sommers, was eliminated from contention in the February 20 primary after spending $48,772.

Interest groups - most notably pro-Republican Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Club for Growth and the pro-Democratic Greater Wisconsin Committee - have outspent the candidates, pouring more than $1.7 million so far into efforts to influence the outcome of the election, bringing total spending in the race to over $3.2 million.

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Wisconsin’s costly, nasty and highly partisan race for the open seat on the state’s highest court has caught the attention of national observers. Today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel features an op-ed piece authored by one such onlooker, the director of the national judicial reform group Justice at Stake. The commentary is both a cautionary tale and a call to action from the perspective of someone who has watched from a front-row seat as judicial politics has gone sour in so many other states.

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One state that has been unusually proactive in its approach to safeguarding fair and impartial courts is Minnesota. Our neighbors to the west have not yet experienced anything like the Ziegler-Clifford contest, yet still had the foresight to form the Minnesota Citizens Commission for the Preservation of an Impartial Judiciary to explore ways to nip in the bud problems like those now springing up in Wisconsin.

The commission, chaired by former Governor Al Quie, broke free of the traditional debate over the pros and cons of elected versus appointed judges and recommended something of a hybrid of the two conventional approaches.

The Quie Commission yesterday issued its final report calling for a merit-based selection process with four major components. The report proposes the creation of a merit selection commission that would nominate candidates for judicial vacancies based on their qualifications. The governor would then appoint judges from a list of candidates provided by the merit selection commission for an initial term of four years. Performance evaluations would be conducted for all judges to provide information to the public about the performance of judges in their initial term before those judges would stand before the voters in retention elections for subsequent eight-year terms.