A recent report puts Wisconsin in its "Hall of Shame" for the nasty nature of its state judicial campaigns, thanks to outside money and political pressure.
"The New Politics of Judicial Elections" report, published this past October by the nonpartisan group Justice at Stake, studies how state judicial campaigns are growing increasingly polarized and influenced by funding from special interests.
The report says the attack ads bought by the Greater Wisconsin Committee against Justice David Prosser in 2011 "exemplified this race to the bottom" in judicial election campaigns. The "mudslinging" ads aired 1,089 times over 13 days in the 2011 election.
Wisconsin is also featured as a case study in the report, which says the politicization and influence of outside money is undermining public confidence in the court.
"When people have a perception that justice can be bought or sold, it undermines the whole system of our courts – our system of impartial justice," says Oliver Diaz, a former justice on the Mississippi State Supreme Court.
Diaz's story of being targeted by outside money was told in both a documentary and a John Grisham novel. He’ll speak on the subject this afternoon in Milwaukee at the winter meeting of the Wisconsin Association for Justice.
But interest groups and their money are increasing in influence nationally, creating state courts divided along political lines. The Justice at Stake report says $56.4 million were spent on state supreme court elections in 2011 and 2012, with more than half of that money on being spent on TV ads alone.
In Wisconsin, more than $8.6 million went toward campaign ads between 2007 and 2011. This money "paid for some of the nation’s nastiest attack ads and other bruising campaign tactics," the report says.
The electoral battles and internal disputes between polarized judges are not helping the state court's reputation. In 2011, the New York Times ran an editorial on the state of Wisconsin's judicial system, calling it "a study in judicial dysfunction."
“In a very short period of time, we have gone from having a Supreme Court that was a national model to a Supreme Court that is really fodder for late-night comics,” Howard Schweber, a political science and law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Associated Press in 2011.