JAS Deplores Attack Politics in WI Race

Justice at Stake deplored today an attack ad aired against Wisconsin Justice David Prosser, calling it a new example of the state’s furious descent into negative politics in state supreme court elections.

“Wisconsin has become Ground Zero of all that is wrong with state supreme court elections in America today,” Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a press release. “For the third time in four elections, special interest money and character attacks are driving the campaign.”

The ad purchased by the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee accused Justice Prosser, when he was a prosecutor in the late 1970s, of failing to aggressively investigate sex abuse allegations against a Catholic priest (see Gavel Grab).  People involved in the case have made conflicting statements about his role, and the judge has called the latest charges inaccurate and a “smear.”

According to PolitiFact Wisconsin, a respected outlet that examines the truth or falsity of political claims, the ad’s charges rate as “Barely True.”

A total of $1.4 million has been spent on TV advertising in Wisconsin so far, according to a report released today by the Brennan Center for Justice, with special-interest groups accounting for 82 percent of that. The Brennan Center is a JAS partner.

Justice at Stake pointed out that in an infamous 2008 ad, then-Justice Louis Butler of Wisconsin was attacked over his prior legal representation of a murder/rape suspect, when he was a court-appointed public defender.

“For the second time in three elections, an incumbent’s alleged soft treatment of a sex offender, long before he took the bench, has trumped any consideration of that justice’s performance on the bench,” Brandenburg said. “Voters will have to decide what weight to give this three-decade-old case. But just five years ago, the current tenor of high court elections would have been unimaginable in Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin’s election will be held April 5.  It has heated up dramatically in the wake of Gov. Scott Walker’s initiative to strip public employees of most collective bargaining power, legislation that is now being challenged in the courts.

In a debate Monday night, Justice Prosser warned that the multimillion-dollar spending by third-party groups poses a risk for the judiciary, according to a Wisconsin Radio network report. He also contended the current campaign has become one of the most politicized court contests in Wisconsin history.

His challenger, lawyer JoAnne Kloppenburg, said groups have a right to run attack advertising even when candidates don’t agree with their content. There is no evidence her campaign coordinated with those groups, she said.

In a more sedate forum, Justice Prosser and Kloppenburg have answered questions from the Wisconsin State Bar’s appellate practice section, and their answers appear on the bar’s Web site.

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a blog post by Craig Gilbert examined the politics of the contest in an article headlined, “Another ‘perfect storm’: a state Supreme Court race in the grip of external forces.”

Both candidates are accepting public financing in the Supreme Court contest, under a new state law. To learn more about the campaign, check out Gavel Grab.

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