THERE are several reasons why Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler, a member of the court’s five-justice conservative majority, will not be challenged in the April 4 election for a second 10-year term. She will be the first justice in 11 years to be unopposed.
If you look only at the vote totals from the last four Supreme Court elections, it would appear that a moderate lawyer could have a chance against Ziegler: Conservatives won three of the last four Supreme Court elections, but with just 50.9% of all votes cast.
BUT campaign-spending totals in the last four elections tell a much different story — and go a long way toward explaining why Ziegler won’t be challenged on April 4.
According to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign totals, conservative candidates for the Supreme Court and independent groups that ran ads, and backed them in other ways, spent a total of $8.59 million in the last four elections.
Three of those elections were won by now-retired Justice David Prosser (2011), Chief Justice Pat Roggensack (2013) and Justice Rebecca Bradley (2016). The only conservative to lose was Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley in 2015.
IN THOSE four elections, moderate Supreme Court candidates and groups supporting them spent $5.16 million — $3.43 million less than their conservative opponents and their big-spending friends, according to the Democracy Campaign. The only moderate winner in those four elections was incumbent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in 2015.
In low-turnout spring elections, the $3.43 million more spent by conservative candidates and third-party groups had a major impact.
Put another way, conservative Supreme Court candidates and outside groups supporting them — including the Republican State Leadership Committee last year, which spent $114,000 to help elect Justice Rebecca Bradley — accounted for 62-cents of every $1 spent in the last four elections.
DEMOCRATS and others who might otherwise be encouraging veteran lawyers to challenge Ziegler are weary, reeling and regrouping from Nov. 8 losses, and unwilling to — for now — make campaign donations. They also know they will soon be asked to write checks for the party’s nominee against Republican Gov. Scott Walker and to re-elect Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2018.
Republican President-elect Donald Trump not only carried Wisconsin on Nov. 8, but Republicans also won bigger majorities in the Legislature.
Former Justice Janine Geske said there are several reasons why respected, experienced lawyers who should run for the Supreme Court won’t consider it now. Geske served on the court from 1993-’98.
“JUDGES and lawyers, who are highly talented and, under other circumstances, would have been interested in serving on the Supreme Court, do not want to endure the nasty, expensive and ‘reputation ruining’ process of a race,” Geske said, adding:
“With all the ‘dark money’ being poured into these elections, a justice will face ethical attacks when he/she sits on a politically charged case.
“Unfortunately the Supreme Court has exacerbated the problem by enacting a broad judicial ethics provision that sets no limits or guidelines on contributions that would create a conflict.”
UW-Milwaukee Professor Mordecai Lee, who served as a Democratic legislator from 1976 until 1990, offered a more blunt assessment: “Money makes the world go around. Republicans have it. Democrats don’t.”
“Partly related to money is a factor that is rarely discussed,” Lee added. “The lesson of the last Supreme Court and attorney general races was that no matter what the Democratic nominees’ credentials were, the GOP’s attack ads (including heavy media buys) have always succeeded in making the Democratic candidate look soft on crime and pro-criminal rights.”
Lee also said the “many reasons” Democrats are outspent by Republican candidates and third-party groups include:
• “BEFORE Act 10, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce versus public labor unions were roughly balanced. Act 10 removed labor money, organization and effort from the Democratic Party.”
• The 2012 retirement of former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, the millionaire who for about 25 years kept the Democratic Party “well-organized and well-financed.”
• The 2011 redistricting plan, which federal judges have ruled unfairly helped Republicans keep control of the Capitol, is a “self-sustaining” help for Republicans, Lee said. “Being out of power repels financial — and other — support.”
• ”More upper income people give to GOP than to Democrats,” Lee said. “It’s a built-in advantage.”
Overall, Republicans “are simply better at tough politics than Democrats — (using) a kind of scorched-earth approach,” Lee added.
Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit WisconsinEye public affairs channel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org