- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Outside groups have started pumping money into Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race.

The conservative-leaning Wisconsin Alliance for Reform has spent at least $234,660 on a statewide ad buy supporting Justice Rebecca Bradley, according to research released Wednesday by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

Wisconsin Alliance for Reform released a 30-second issue ad this week touting Bradley’s merits. Groups don’t need to report spending on such ads to the state. Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice compiled a spending estimate using files television broadcasters have uploaded to the Federal Communications Commission.

The researchers didn’t find any groups spending on behalf of Bradley’s opponents, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald and 4th District Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg. They also didn’t have an estimate of how much Wisconsin Alliance for Reform may have spent on cable buys; the FCC doesn’t track political ads on cable systems.

Justice at Stake is a national nonpartisan group that focuses on keeping courts impartial. The Brennan Center for Justice is a nonpartisan institute in the New York University School of Law.

Liberal group One Wisconsin Now said its research shows Wisconsin Alliance for Reform has spent closer to $400,000 on ads. One Wisconsin Now’s deputy director, Mike Browne, said the group queried every Wisconsin television station and cable system. He said the group didn’t search for groups supporting Bradley’s opponents.

Outside groups have spent millions trying to influence the last three Supreme Court races, according to estimates from government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. They spent $4.5 million ahead of the 2011 election between incumbent Justice David Prosser and Kloppenburg; $1.2 million in the 2013 race between incumbent Justice Pat Roggensack and challenger Ed Fallone; and $169,000 in last year’s race between incumbent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and challenger James Daley. That race was far quieter and drew far less attention than the two previous contests, however.

Bradley, Donald and Kloppenburg have a Feb. 16 primary, with the top two advancing to the April 5 general election. Wisconsin Supreme Court races are officially nonpartisan, although Bradley has ties to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who appointed her as a Milwaukee County judge and an appellate judge before tapping her to replace Justice Patrick Crooks after he died in his chambers in September.

Justice at Stake spokeswoman Laurie Kinney said outside spending in state Supreme Court races raises questions about justices’ impartiality and whether they feel beholden to groups that support them.

“If you have a justice who arrives on the bench courtesy of millions of dollars of spending by an outside interest group, what is the effect going to be on that person’s professional performance?” Kinney said. “It’s deleterious to the administration of justice.”

Wisconsin Alliance for Reform describes itself on its website as a “coalition of concerned citizens and community leaders committed to creating greater economic opportunities for Wisconsin families.” Asked why the group had chosen to back Bradley, spokesman Chris Martin said by email that she embodies the leadership and courage the group expects from justices.

More outside spending looks to be on the way. Scott Manley, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a staunch Republican ally, told the Wisconsin State Journal last month that the group plans to get involved in the race. The group spent nearly $2 million on ads supporting the conservative-leaning Prosser and Roggensack, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The group spent nothing to help Daley.

Manley didn’t immediately return a telephone message The Associated Press left at his office Wednesday. In September Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Vice President Jim Pugh called Bradley “the leading conservative for the high court,” suggesting the group’s spending this time will go to support her.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1.

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