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WI Supreme Court Race: Record Spending Leads to Reform Calls

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Monday, April 3, 2023   

Leading up to this week's election, Wisconsin voters have been inundated with campaign ads for the high-profile state Supreme Court race, and watchdogs say the massive spending should lead to more calls for reform.

The race to fill a seat on Wisconsin's high court has shattered campaign spending records, with nearly $40 million in contributions. The outcome of the contest will affect the court's ideological balance, making it attractive to donors.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, said the loosening of state campaign finance laws in recent years is a big factor here.

"The campaign finance laws in Wisconsin have been totally decimated in the last 10 years," Heck contended. "We now allow in this state coordination between outside special interest groups and candidate committees, including for the Supreme Court."

The court has had a conservative majority for some time now, sparking backlash about such matters as gerrymandered political maps favoring Republicans. Even with those concerns in mind, Heck argued all voters lose when judicial campaigns are allowed so much access to financial support. He noted the candidates now have to run like those seeking other offices, shedding their impartiality in the process.

Republicans led the charge to overhaul the state's campaign finance laws, and Democrats have made unsuccessful attempts to bring back restrictions. Those who supported the changes argued they were necessary because these activities were already happening. But Heck countered it is grown out of hand, especially for judicial races.

"And I think that's a tragedy, because that's not what Wisconsin used to be like," Heck recounted. "We used to have a reputation for having one of the most impartial, least corruptible court systems in the country."

He warned justices are not required to recuse themselves from a case if there is a conflict of interest stemming from a campaign donation.

Common Cause is not endorsing any candidate, but Heck acknowledged a flip to a left-leaning majority could lead to decisions on election policy his group supports, included overturning a ban on drop boxes for ballots.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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