How Big $ Can Pollute Wisconsin Supreme Court Races More Than Ever

by Matthew Rothchild, Executive Director

February 14, 2018

Big money can now pollute Wisconsin Supreme Court races more than ever before thanks to the GOP-dominated legislature, which recklessly rewrote our campaign finance law in 2015.

Some of the changes brought on by that law have come into focus after Michael Screnock’s campaign reported receiving $111,100 from the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

A gavel on a pile of cash

Leaving aside the absurdity of the Republican Party of Wisconsin spending so much on what is supposed to be a “nonpartisan” race, there is the added absurdity of political parties now being able to give unlimited amounts of money to the candidate of their choice in any race—even for Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Before that, the most a candidate for the state supreme court could receive from all committees combined was $140,156. So the candidate could accept $140,156 from the Republican Party of Wisconsin, but then the candidate could not accept a single dime from any other committee.

Now the sky is the limit. Political parties can now give unlimited amounts of money to candidates of their choice.

To make matters worse, before the 2015 rewrite, the most that a rich individual could give to a political party was $10,000. Now a rich individual can give unlimited amounts of money to a political party.

With both of these ceilings torn down, a billionaire could give $10 million to a political party, and that party could then turn around and spend that $10 million on the billionaire’s favorite candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

This makes a mockery of the limits on direct donations to candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court, which used to be $10,000 and now is $20,000 (itself a ridiculously high sum).

Also making a mockery of those limits was the Court’s own decision in 2015 to legalize coordination between candidates and outside “issue advocacy” groups, and this legalized coordination was also put into the statutes in the 2015 rewrite.

So if you’re running for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, you can now tell your billionaire friend to write that $10 million check to some bogus issue advocacy group, and that group can then run an ad saying your opponent is the biggest scoundrel in the world. It’s just as if your friend gave your campaign the check, except that it’s 500 times the legal limit -- and the kicker is, your friend can do it in secret since the “issue advocacy” group doesn’t have to disclose who its donors are.

Wisconsin used to have public financing for our highest court here. Walker and Company threw that out shortly after coming to power.

Now we have private financing by immensely wealthy individuals, and some of it is untraceable.

All of this is an invitation to corruption. And the justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court have already accepted that invitation by not tightening their own rules on judicial recusal.

Far from being a leader in clean government, as was our tradition here in Wisconsin, we are now a leader in dirty government.