These days, it’s hard to get the Wisconsin Supreme Court to agree on anything. But back in December of 2007, the Court stood united in its push for public financing of Supreme Court elections. Earlier in the year, conservative Annette Ziegler had run a successful race against liberal attorney Linda Clifford that featured substantial advertising from interested third party groups. In their zeal to restrict these types of ads, the Court issued a letter calling for full public financing of court races, saying “Judges must not only be fair, neutral, impartial and non-partisan but also should be so perceived by the public.”
The Ziegler race was followed up in 2008 by Mike Gableman’s race against incumbent Justice Louis Butler – a race which featured ads that clearly obfuscated the role of a Supreme Court justice. The ads – run primarily by the candidates themselves – portrayed the Supreme Court as some kind of law enforcement board, intent on keeping criminals in prison. (We denounced this tactic at the time.)
Following Gableman’s victory, ideas started to flow on how to get court elections back to focusing on what the court actually does. The Wisconsin State Journal has been on a Don-Quixote like quest to eliminate judicial elections altogether, believing voters aren’t capable of picking their own justices.
But the issue of public financing of Court elections still lingers. Public financing supporters believe that shutting down independent ads and leaving the electioneering up to the candidates themselves will leave voters with a much clearer understanding of the role of the Supreme Court.
To those people, I offer this television ad from Chief Justice and current candidate Shirley Abrahamson:
As you can see, Chief Justice Abrahamson is going to help you wiggle out of your bad mortgage – regardless of any kind of contract you signed, or regardless of whether any case dealing with your mortgage is actually before the Court. Also, Abrahamson is “protecting consumers from abuse,” whatever that means. She “stands up for all of us.” Then, the denouement, from Abrahamson’s own mouth:
“The best thing a judge can do is to help people. That’s what I do.”
Is she serious? The best thing a judge can do is to apply the law as written to certain facts of a case. The judge’s role isn’t to “stand up” for anyone. “Standing up” for people means writing your own new laws to generate a favorable outcome – whether or not it actually ends up hurting people in the long run. (Incidentally, where are these cases that “help people?” Doesn’t being a judge necessarily mean resolving disputes in which some party eventually ends up not being “helped?”)
So I dare anyone to look at that ad and tell me with a straight face that leaving campaigning up to the candidates themselves is going to give anyone a clearer idea of what the Court does. If anything, Abrahamson’s own ad leaves voters with a cloudier understanding of her role as a judge – this is an ad that could easily be run by a candidate for legislative office. That ad does more to undermine Abrahamson’s own “impartiality” than any ad by a third party could.
All public financing will do will be to shut out advertising that might actually set the record straight on Abrahamson’s record. So it’s no wonder Abrahamson favors public financing in Supreme Court races -with it in place, she could continue to exploit people with bad mortgages with impunity.