WRTL targets judicial tax financing in Wis.

February 8, 2011   •  By Jeff Patch
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Wisconsin Right to Life Political Action Committee asked for a federal injunction today to prevent Wisconsin from implementing its tax financing program for state Supreme Court candidates.

From the James Madison Center for Free Speech release:

Today, Wisconsin Right to Life Political Action Committee asked a federal court to prevent Wisconsin’s public funding scheme from being implemented for Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates, asserting it is an unconstitutional infringement of their First Amendment free speech rights.
Under the scheme, state Supreme Court candidates who agree not to fundraise are given initial campaign funds from the state of $300,000, with additional “rescue fund” money of up to $900,000, depending on the amount spent by third parties and their opponents. Those who do not take public funding are limited to $1,000 contributions. 
Wisconsin Right to Life’s PAC plans to spend its own money supporting candidates for the upcoming 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court race. Wisconsin Right to Life wants to stop the inclusion of non-candidate spending in determining when a publicly funded candidate has been out-spent by a traditionally funded opponent and is entitled to rescue funds. The request would also halt rules that require additional reports on its spending because the reports are in place solely to make sure candidates receive additional public funding. Prosperity PAC and Mr. Mitchell want to give more than $1,000 and seek to enjoin the $1,000 contribution limit.

According to James Bopp, Jr., counsel for all three plaintiffs, “Under this system, simply running an ad against a candidate can result in that candidate getting more taxpayer money. People are chilled from speaking in support of a candidate because doing so will likely result in providing additional funds to that candidate’s opponent. And donors are limited in how much they can give to discourage candidates from choosing not to participate.”

The case is Wisconsin Right to Life v. Brennan, et al., 3:09-cv-764. The memo for injunctive relief is available in PDF online at the James Madison Center’s website, www.jamesmadisoncenter.org, under WRTL v. Brennan.

The Center for Competitive Politics is representing Judge Randy Koschnick in similar litigation in Wisconsin. The case is still pending. The Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett, which the Court will hear in March, will likely determine the outcome of the Wisconsin litigation.

The Wisconsin State Journal recently asked the four candidates for their views on campaign finance issues:

Q: Have you accepted or not accepted public funding for your campaign? Why or why not?

Kloppenburg: I am limiting spending and not accepting special interest money through Wisconsin’s Impartial Justice Act. Recent judicial campaigns have undermined the public’s confidence that our judiciary is independent and impartial. If candidates for Supreme Court won’t step up and participate in efforts to improve judicial elections, who will?

Prosser: There is a place for public financing, especially in judicial elections. However, Wisconsin’s present law is flawed. I am taking public financing because I play by the rules and because I would have been subjected to unrelenting criticism if I had not. Critics can have double standards.

Stephens: I am not accepting public funding for my campaign. The greatest challenge I see in this race is getting my message out to the people in the face of unlimited spending by third parties. I realized that the base grants provided under the financing law would not be sufficient.

Winnig: I worked hard for and accepted public funding. I was not willing to rely on special interests or political parties to be elected. Because of the complete independence of my campaign, I will be able to decide cases before the Court solely on the basis of the law and constitution.

Q: How would you characterize the role that special interests have played in recent Supreme Court races? Should the role of money in judicial campaigns be limited?

Kloppenburg: I am not accepting any special interest money in this race. Candidates can, and should, send a clear message that as a judge they will be independent and impartial and that justice is not for sale. Third party ads have had a negative effect in many elections in Wisconsin.

Prosser: Wisconsin elects judges to assure accountability. I support judicial elections. Reasonable contribution limits promote impartiality. However, denying judicial candidates the ability to communicate effectively with the people is unconstitutional. Denying private citizens the right to influence elections by spending money to express their views is inconsistent with democratic theory.

Stephens: Third party groups have routinely outspent candidates in Supreme Court races. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the freedom to speak as individuals and collectively in political campaigns.

Winnig: In 2008, special interest groups financed the most disgraceful campaign in the history of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. They decided they could buy a seat on Wisconsin’s highest court. In ways consistent with the Constitution, the role of money should be limited to restore independence and integrity to the Court.

Prosser, the incumbent supported by many Republicans and business groups, and Stephens, supported by many Democrats and liberal groups, seem to have relatively robust views about the importance of upholding the First Amendment rights of candidates and political groups in campaigns (even though Prosser is accepting the welfare check). Kloppenburg and Winnig seem to be vying to outdo each other as to who can trample on First Amendment political rights more.

Here’s an interesting snippet from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

Winnig believes independent groups should stay out of the race and let candidates speak for themselves, campaign spokesman Dave Broker said.

That’s an outrageous commentary on Winnig’s disdain for a robust debate to inform citizens: no pesky criticism of candidates needed.

Jeff Patch

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