Federal judge upholds Wis. campaign-finance law

Saturday, April 2, 2011

MILWAUKEE — A federal judge ruled against two lawsuits yesterday that challenged Wisconsin's law on financing Supreme Court elections — less than a week before the vote.

Wisconsin Right to Life, the Wisconsin Center for Economic Prosperity and school-choice advocate George Mitchell filed a lawsuit in 2009, contending the law violated their free speech and wanting to halt the public-financing process for this election.

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. The April 8 election marks the first time the system has come into play.

Both Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg are using the public-financing option.

The lawsuit involving Wisconsin Right to Life challenges the so-called “rescue funds” provision that 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 the candidate by a certain amount. The suit also challenged reporting requirements for third-party candidates and the $1,000 limit on campaign contributions by individuals and committees to privately funded candidates.

In his decision yesterday, U.S. District Judge William Conley wrote he was upholding the law in light of the state's compelling interest in preventing any perception that Supreme Court elections are tainted with bias.

Wisconsin Right to Life Executive Director Barbara Lyons said her group would file an appeal asking for an emergency decision before the election.

In the other lawsuit, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Randy Koschnick also challenged the matching funds and said the law violates his First Amendment rights. In that decision, Conley wrote that because Koschnick's candidacy for Supreme Court was uncertain, he didn't have standing to challenge the act.

Koschnick ran against and lost to Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson in 2009. Koschnick said he was considering an appeal. He said he was closely watching an Arizona case with similar issues currently before the U.S. Supreme Court to see whether it might affect his case.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board enforces the Supreme Court election-financing regulations. Spokesman Reid Magney released a statement yesterday saying the board was pleased its position was upheld.

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. Candidates can also receive money to match what is spent by outside groups.

They would be eligible for additional public funding if opponents spent 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 Conley's order.

The plaintiffs argued the matching funds led them to self-censor their spending. But Conley wrote that relationship between the plaintiff's speech and the award of supplemental funding “is too speculative, indirect and watered down to warrant an entry of an injunction.”