Corruption of justice in high relief in Wisconsin
Lincoln Caplan writes in the New Yorker:
Next week, the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider whether it will hear an appeal of a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that, last year, halted a criminal investigation and ordered the destruction of all the evidence it gathered. The case is about the seemingly peripheral issue of judicial recusal. But it brings together two of the biggest disrupters of American democracy today: the surge, after the Citizens United decision struck down limits on independent spending, of private influence in elections; and the politicization of the highest courts in many states. For the past eight years, Wisconsin has been a laboratory testing the toxicity of this combination.
In 2008, conservative businesspeople in Wisconsin recruited a county trial judge named Michael Gableman to challenge Louis Butler, a liberal justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who was its first African-American member. In support of Gableman, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Wisconsin chapter of the Club for Growth, the conservative group funded by the Koch brothers’ network, spent an estimated $2.8 million. Gableman won with fifty-one per cent of the vote, giving the conservatives what turned out to be a critical majority on the court.
Gableman’s election raised an issue of serious concern around the country: When an organization, or an individual, that supported a judge’s election is a party to a case before him, shouldn’t that judge recuse himself? In 2009, by a 5–4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state judge must recuse himself when spending by a party to a case had “a significant and disproportionate influence” on the outcome of the judge’s election. The Court reasoned that, “just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when—without the consent of the other parties—a man chooses the judge in his own cause.”
Shortly after that decision, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Fundproposed a change in the recusal rules of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, so that a justice would have to recuse himself if a party in a case, or the lawyer or law firm handling it, had given a thousand dollars or more within the previous two years. In response, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce submitted two opposing rule petitions, which the justices voted to adopt, without amendment, in October, 2009. Together, the rule changes meant that a justice did not have to recuse himself just because a litigant had contributed to a justice’s campaign or made an independent expenditure on its behalf. The court’s four conservatives made up the majority that approved the changes.
In January, 2010, the conservatives again approved the changes, with some minor tweaks in the language. That same day, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, striking down limits on independent spending in elections by corporations, unions, and other organizations. “The appearance of influence or access” from such spending, the Court said, “will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy. By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate.” The decision unleashed a torrent of spending in American elections.
In November, 2010, Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin, and Republicans won majorities in both houses of the state legislature. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimated that Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent about nine hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and that Wisconsin Club for Growth spent about a hundred thousand dollars. As William Finnegan reported, Walker had a strong anti-union agenda, and moved to cut the salaries of teachers and other government employees and gut the rights of public-sector unions. The legislation was enacted even as protesters occupied the state capitol, capturing national and international attention.
A few months into Walker’s tenure, David T. Prosser, Jr., a conservative justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, faced a serious challenge from a liberal opponent, who made the election a referendum on Walker’s anti-union agenda. An e-mail, dated March 20, 2011, circulated among Walker insiders, which said, “David Prosser is in trouble. And if we lose him, the Walker agenda is toast.” Two days earlier, a state trial judge had imposed a temporary restraining order that kept the new law from going into effect. If the case went to the State Supreme Court, and liberals had recaptured the majority, Walker’s supporters were concerned that the court would strike down the core of the law.
Walker’s right-wing circle mobilized and raised two and a half million dollars of corporate funding in support of Prosser. . .
Read the whole thing. It’s depressing, but it does reflect the gradual degradation of government and law in the US.