A war is being waged for control of our courts. And, as with all wars, there are casualties. It’s said that truth is the first casualty of war, and that certainly was the case in this year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election.
The campaigning was ceaselessly deceptive and misleading, often downright untruthful, and with very few exceptions unrelentingly trashy.
Two other casualties also stand out. One is judicial independence. Wisconsin is well on its way to special interest ownership of our courts. A handful of special interest lobbying groups and phony front organizations did over 90 percent of the campaign advertising in the race, spending over $4 million to gain control of the Supreme Court.
The candidates were for the most part bystanders in this election. The interest groups defined the candidates, decided which issue would be discussed and controlled what was said about that issue. The issue was crime, even though it has virtually nothing to do with the work of the Supreme Court.
Another casualty is the state’s judicial code of ethics, which is no longer worth the paper it’s written on. This election was conducted in a way that is not remotely in keeping with the requirements of the ethics code. The code is dead as a doornail unless the state Judicial Commission and ultimately the Supreme Court itself takes forceful action to enforce these rules and hold candidates for the high court accountable for obeying them.
The court is in a no-win position. If the justices vigorously enforce the code, that means punishing one of their own (well, actually, two of their own). That would require them to throw cordiality out the window and let the chips fall where they may. If on the other hand they opt to maintain constructive working relationships (if that’s even possible anymore), they sign the ethics code’s death certificate.
They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The Supreme Court is in the midst of a hostile takeover. Many in the legal community and many more in the broader community of Wisconsin citizens have pulled a Switzerland.
But as Dante famously said, the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, remain neutral.
Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the money in state politics and works for campaign finance reform and other democracy reforms. WDC’s web site is www.wisdc.org.