December 8, 2007
Supreme Court watch dog
During the awful Supreme Court race between Judge Annette Ziegler and Linda Clifford, where money trumped endorsements and issues, it became painfully clear that people and PACs outside the official campaigns raised the lion's share of the money (in the millions) crafted the TV spots, dug up the dirt, framed the contest. (See my March 28 blog to get some of the flavor of the Clifford-Ziegler "contest".) I often complained that the Bar Association was doing nothing to clean up the mess.
This week State Bar president Tom Basting, senior partner in the firm used by Tommy Thompson when he was governor, is fed up with the handling of judicial races. To deal with the problem, Basting announced the creation of the Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee (WJCIC).
Was this an independent initiative? Were leaders in the Legislature consulted? The Court? The governor? Did the Bar Association agree to pony-up some money? All those questions should be answered.
The first commission request: "Asking candidates for Supreme Court to pledge not to run advertising or make statements that are misleading or unfair or which raise questions about the integrity or independence of the judiciary."
Basting appointed people with a variety of backgrounds and some rather narrow political diversity. Let's assume this is well-intentioned and might help in April of next year when WMC has threatened to spend up to $4 million electing a pro-business Justice. The only effective antidote? Public financing. Does the WJCIC have the guts to take on WMC? If a candidate complains that WMC is jeopardizing the Court's independence, because it is, would that violate the pledge? Will chairman Basting tell WMC to stop spending?
Basting, appearing on Wisconsin Public Television's Here and Now last night, said the group would use the media to go after pledge-breakers. How? Is he suggesting the Wisconsin State Journal will carry the Commission's objections? And, if they do, can any paper's editorial scolding match $4 million in TV spots? How much money will the Commission have? Will they have research teams? Will they investigate the truthiness of the TV spots, even if the spots are created by the Swift-Boat-like folks hired by WMC? Will they hire a public relations firm and will the firm be "neutral"? Will the Bar Association's PR staff handle releases.
Enough. Let's give Basting some time, but let's also pass public financing of Supreme Court races on December 11. The Commission is no match for millions of bucks directed to help the WMC candidate. To think otherwise is to ignore history. The Commission should appear at the Capitol next week to push for public financing. If Basting takes a pass, don't hold out too much hope that people, instead of special interests, will elect the next Justice to our Supreme Court.
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