CAP TIMES: Wisconsin Supreme Court hears Act 10 case involving their biggest financial backers

November 12, 2013
Jack Craver

If the Wisconsin Supreme Court does not rule in Gov. Scott Walker’s favor by reinstating the entirety of Act 10, the governor’s signature law that restricts public sector collective bargaining, it's likely a small group of very wealthy people will feel ripped off.

The court is considering a ruling by a Dane County Circuit Court judge last year that key parts of the law were unconstitutional.

The four justices who make up the Supreme Court’s conservative majority owe their positions largely to the help of Republican Party allies, notably Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group.

Recent Supreme Court races have featured intense TV ad wars between WMC and the union-backed Greater Wisconsin Committee, which works to support Democrats and nonpartisan candidates aligned with the Democratic Party.

The ads almost never feature the issues that are most important to the interests financing them. Instead, they either stress the preferred candidate’s support for strong law enforcement or accuse the opponent of being corrupt or of letting criminals off easy. Or both.

WMC and Greater Wisconsin squared off in the race between conservative candidate Annette Ziegler and liberal candidate Linda Clifford in 2007, with WMC highlighting Ziegler’s endorsements from law enforcement and Greater Wisconsin attacking Ziegler for ruling in cases in which she had financial interests and of giving light sentences to sex offenders. Ziegler won 58-42.

WMC won another significant victory in 2008, when it helped conservative candidate Michael Gableman unseat incumbent Justice Louis Butler by running ads highlighting Butler’s previous career as a criminal defense attorney and citing cases in which he had voted to overturn convictions for violent criminals. Gableman nevertheless was hit by Greater Wisconsin ads before taking the win.

The only judicial election that was clearly tied to the issue of labor rights came in 2011, when Justice David Prosser only narrowly won reelection at the height of the protests at the Capitol over Act 10.

The election, which was originally anticipated to be an easy win for the conservative incumbent, turned into a referendum on the controversial labor legislation, and Democrats and unions mobilized the state’s liberal base to turn out in an attempt to boost the candidacy of JoAnne Kloppenburg. Greater Wisconsin ran ads accusing Prosser of letting a pedophile priest off the hookwhen he was a prosecutor decades ago, and WMC ran ads touting Prosser’s support from law enforcement officials and suggesting that Kloppenburg was weak on crime.

Finally, last year, conservative Justice Pat Roggensack was easily reelected in an election that was nowhere near as intense as previous races but still featured ads from WMC — praising the judge for protecting children from sexual predators — and mailers attacking the conservative candidate from Greater Wisconsin.

In this case, therefore, the court’s conservatives are essentially being asked to rule on whether or not to uphold a law that will significantly weaken the ability of their political opponents to raise money to finance ads attacking them.

Conversely, the court’s three liberal or moderate members will be under pressure to strike down Act 10 and support the interests of those who will quite likely support their reelection campaigns, assuming they still have any money to do so.

Lester Pines, the attorney representing Madison Teachers Inc., the union challenging Act 10, nevertheless voiced hope that the judges would put aside their political alliances in making their ruling. While he acknowledged the court's ideological split, he said the judges response to oral arguments in court did not indicate a bias.

"I thought the judges took the issues in the case extremely seriously and paid very close attention to the arguments on both sides," he said. "I did not get the impression that the members of the court had made up their minds."

Nevertheless, he said, "You can't read a lot into oral arguments."

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