7th Circuit won’t halt Wis. public-financing system

Monday, April 4, 2011

MILWAUKEE — A federal appeals court turned aside a request April 1 to block the state’s public-financing system from providing matching funds to candidates for tomorrow’s state Supreme Court election.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling came hours after an anti-abortion group and other plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the financing system filed an emergency request for an injunction.

Wisconsin Right to Life, the Wisconsin Center for Economic Prosperity and school-choice advocate George Mitchell filed a lawsuit in 2009, contending the law establishing the public-financing system violated their free-speech rights. The groups sought to halt the public-financing process for this election, arguing that the matching funds led them to self-censor their spending.

On March 31, U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled against the plaintiffs, writing that he was upholding the law in light of the state’s compelling interest in avoiding the perception that Supreme Court elections are tainted with an appearance of bias.

The plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal on April 1 as well as an emergency motion asking the 7th Circuit to halt the law pending their appeal. The plaintiffs argued that the so-called rescue-fund provision is unconstitutional. That provision sends a candidate a matching amount of money, up to $900,000 in the general election, if the opponent or a third-party group outspends them.

The one-page order from the 7th Circuit said only that the motion was denied.

Legislators set up public financing in 2009 after critics contended Supreme Court races had grown too expensive, creating concerns justices were beholden to special interest donors. Tomorrow’s election — between Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg — marks the first time the system has come into play.

Under the law, called the Impartial Justice Act, eligible candidates could get a $100,000 grant in public money for a primary campaign and another $300,000 grant for a general election run.

They would be eligible for additional public funding if opponents spend more than $360,000 on certain kinds of advertising advocating against them. So far, about $13,000 has been spent toward that $360,000 trigger, according to the federal judge’s ruling March 31.

Wisconsin Right for Life’s lawyer, James Bopp Jr., the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Government Accountability Board could not be reached for comment in time for this story.

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