Wisconsin's other court battle

As basketball dominates headlines, Badger staters hit polls for pivotal judicial vote

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Wisconsin voters will make two major choices on Tuesday that will affect the state’s highest court. One will fill a seat on the seven-person Wisconsin Supreme Court. The other will determine how the state selects the high court’s chief justice.

Although both issues are officially nonpartisan, the campaigns are attracting partisan dollars.

Here are the six things to know about Wisconsin’s election, which will immediately follow another kind of court battle — Monday night's NCAA men's national basketball championship game, which pits the University of Wisconsin against Duke University:

1.) The Supreme Court candidates: Incumbent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who voters elected to Wisconsin’s highest court in 1995, will face lower court Judge James Daley in Tuesday’s election. Though judicial candidates do not declare party affiliation in these nonpartisan judicial elections, Bradley is widely viewed as part of the high court’s liberal minority. In a campaign ad that aired in Madison late last month, Bradley assured voters that “special interests and partisan politics have no place in our courtroom.” She has said she would not accept money from the Democratic Party, although her top backers include Democratic booster and Milwaukee philanthropist Lynde Uihlein. Former Madison Mayor Joseph Sensenbrenner is also a supporter. On the other side, the Wisconsin Republican Party ranks among Daley’s top donors, a list that also includes national GOP donor Richard Uihlein and Green Bay Packers director emeritus Paul J. Schierl, according to state campaign finance filings.

2.) The ballot question: If approved by voters, Question 1 would change the state’s constitution so that the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is elected by a majority of the court’s seven justices. Now, the court’s top spot goes to the longest serving jurist. Justice Shirley Abrahamson, part of the high court’s liberal minority, is currently chief justice. Bradley, another liberal, is next in line under the existing system. The court is slated to decide the “John Doe” case involving Gov. Scott Walker’s alleged campaign misconduct in a 2011 recall election, and a conservative chief justice might be more sympathetic to the Republican governor and prospective presidential candidate.

3.) The race for campaign cash: Bradley has outraised her opponent, $525,000 to $231,000, according to state campaign reports through April 3. Bradley reported spending more than $510,000 on television ads, according to Federal Communications Commission records. Daley has not put up any TV ads, but his campaign filings show he purchased more than $108,000 in radio ads.

4.) Independent spenders step in: The left-leaning Greater Wisconsin Committee and the conservative WMC Issues Mobilization Council are duking it out in the races.

The Greater Wisconsin Committee jumped into the judicial race in late March with an ad that accused Daley of protecting “child abusers” by handing down lax sentences as a Rock County Circuit Court judge. The group spent more than $100,000 on the ads, according to Federal Communications Commission records. It is also spending money to oppose Wisconsin’s ballot measure about chief justice appointments. State campaign records show the group gave $280,000 to Make Your Vote Count, a committee that has sponsored radio and television ads opposing the constitutional amendment. The group received no other donations as of April 3. The Greater Wisconsin Committee, a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, is not required to disclose its donors to the public. But IRS records indicate that a related group with the same address gets most of its cash from national labor unions such as the AFL-CIO and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The Greater Wisconsin Committee is no stranger to elections, spending about $4.3 million on TV ads attacking conservative Wisconsin candidates during 2014 state elections.

On the other side, a group called Vote Yes for Democracy has sponsored radio and TV ads in support of the chief justice appointment ballot measure. The group received a single $600,000 donation from the WMC Issues Mobilization Council in late March. During the 2014 election, the pro-business council spent nearly $5 million on TV ads supporting conservative candidates for Wisconsin office.

5.) Partisan drama as backdrop: WWE-esque drama and political scandal have rocked Wisconsin’s high court within recent years. In 2011, Bradley accused fellow Justice David Prosser, a former Republican legislator, of choking her during an argument about the state’s partisan battle over collective bargaining rights for state workers. Prosser was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and an ethics complaint against him stalled when too many justices recused themselves from ruling on it. Late reports filed April 3 show that Prosser donated $500 to Daley, Bradley’s opponent in the race.

6.) Changing picture for judicial elections: Once insulated from political blood sport, judicial elections across the nation have become just as messy — and expensive — in the past decade as races for legislative and executive state office. The campaigns of state supreme court candidates attracted at least $18 million during the 2014 election cycle, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Independent groups paid for more than $5 million in TVs related to last year’s state supreme court races, with more than a quarter spent by nonprofit groups that do not disclose their donors. Thirty-eight states elect their high court judges. Wisconsin is one of 14 states with a nonpartisan election system.

Next up for state judicial elections: A May 19 partisan primary for three of the seven seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

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