A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Public Financing Comes to Wisconsin Supreme Court


Prompted by escalating campaign spending and the increasing use of attack ads, Wisconsin state legislators and Gov. Jim Doyle have enacted a bill to provide public financing for the Supreme Court’s candidates.

Would-be justices would qualify for the funds by agreeing to limit spending and by raising small sums totaling between $5,000 and $15,000 from 1,000 different contributors. They could then receive up to $100,000 for a primary race and up to $300,000 for a general election – which, even in an inexpensive media market, won’t fund too many TV ads of any kind. However, if one candidate "opts out" of the new system to raise unlimited funds, his or her opponent(s) could then receive more money, and a "rescue provision" would give additional funds to candidates who were being attacked by third parties. In no case, though, could they receive more than $900,000 for a general election. The law also limits individual contributions to candidates who aren’t participating in the system to $1,000, down from the current $10,000 cap – a factor likely to encourage candidates to choose public financing.

One big loophole: "issue" ads, which are ads run by third parties that support or attack a candidate without saying explicitly how viewers should vote. Candidates will not receive additional public money when they are maligned by these ads.

We wrote about the misleading attacks, funded by candidates as well as outside groups, that dominated two of Wisconsin’s three most recent court races: the 2008 contest between Louis Butler and Mike Gableman and the 2007 throwdown between Linda Clifford and Annette Ziegler. Those races cost about $6 million each, factoring in both candidate and group spending. Gableman, who won his race, is still waiting to see whether his fellow justices will dismiss a finding by the state’s judicial commission that there was "probable cause to believe that [he] willfully violated" the state’s code of judicial ethics with one of his ads. Last month, a panel of three lower court judges recommended that the complaint be thrown out.

Wisconsin becomes the third state to publicly finance its supreme court elections, joining North Carolina and New Mexico. Bert Brandenburg, who runs the nonprofit group Justice at Stake, hailed the measure, saying it means that "Wisconsin’s judges can focus on applying the law and talking to voters, not on dialing for dollars." Other groups concerned about the negative tone and high cost of judicial races, such as JudgesOnMerit.org, a Pennsylvania group, want to do away with elections altogether in favor of merit selection.

This is another installment of our occasional Court Watch series.