Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), Wisconsin's premier lobby for corporate tax breaks and low-wage jobs, has unleashed a $600,000 ad blitz to strip Wisconsin's independent chief justice of her title just as the Wisconsin Supreme Court prepares to take up the "John Doe" criminal probe of Scott Walker and the special-interest groups that defended him against recall in 2012.
WMC's spending in the recall campaigns is one of key issues in the case. The case will be considered in secret without oral arguments by Wisconsin's Supreme Court, whose conservative majority was elected by WMC.
You can't make this stuff up.
'Vote Yes for Democracy' Campaign Designed to Mislead
The last-minute ad campaign is spearheaded by a referendum committee called "Vote Yes for Democracy," whose front man is long-time Republican operative and lobbyist Brandon Sholtz. Campaign filings show zero grassroots support but major contributions by the state's largest business lobby, WMC.
The committee was formed to back a constitutional amendment on the April 7 spring ballot that would change the way the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is chosen. For 126 years under Wisconsin's Constitution, the title has been given to the longest-serving member of the court. Now WMC and the state's GOP leadership, with ties to the right-wing majority of the court, are anxious to change the process to a majority vote.
As CMD previously reported, there was little grassroots demand or support for the change to Wisconsin's founding document. Those registering in favor included WMC and former Justice John Wilcox, whose own campaign was fined $10,000 for exactly the type of illegal campaign coordination that is at issue in the John Doe. His case established the precedent in Wisconsin that campaign coordination with outside groups is illegal.
WMC says the issue is democracy, but the claim is a howler given that the powerful corporate lobby shop has already spent millions to elect the court's right-wing majority and to ensure the GOP's complete control of the legislative and executive branches of government. They are now gunning for the independent chief justice as the court prepares to delve into allegations of illegal campaign coordination between Gov. Scott Walker and -- you guessed it -- WMC and other allegedly "independent" campaign groups.
The $600,000 ad blitz will drown the $80,000 radio ad buy from the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee. Wisconsin voters who will see the "Vote Yes for Democracy" ads will have no knowledge of the corrupt machinations behind the scenes and the unprecedented case that is unwinding behind the closed doors of the state's highest court.
If the constitutional amendment passes on April 7, Wisconsin's respected Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson will be stripped of her title and her authority on April 8.
Talk about the nick of time. Arguments in the John Doe were scheduled for April 17 and 20.
Case That Will Decide Walker's Fate to Be Decided in Unprecedented Secrecy
In the John Doe investigation, which has gotten little attention outside the state, a bipartisan group of prosecutors allege that the Walker campaign illegally coordinated fundraising and expenditures with Wisconsin Club for Growth (WiCFG) and WMC during the 2011 and 2012 recall campaigns.
While coordination between candidate campaign committees and independent groups is prohibited, WiCFG director R.J. Johnson was also Walker's campaign manager when the state faced a series of nine recall races after the passage of the 2011 union-busting Act 10 legislation. Representatives of the Walker campaign or the dark-money groups could face civil or criminal liability if prosecutors find that they conspired to evade campaign finance disclosure requirements and contribution limits. (The U.S. Department of Justice recently settled a criminal campaign coordination case in Virginia.) In his run for the White House, Walker continues to exhibit total disregard for campaign finance law, says the Campaign Legal Center in a complaint filed before the FEC this week.
Although arguments in the John Doe case were scheduled for April 17 and 20, in an effort to make sure no facts of the case that might be harmful to the defendants were leaked, the court took the unprecedented decision to hear no oral arguments at all, either behind closed doors or in public. The court also denied the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's efforts to intervene in the case.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson dissented vigorously.
"The court's failure to provide further justification for its highly unusual decision to cancel oral argument is, in my view, alarming."
The decision "may, unfortunately, signify the court's intention to dispose of the John Doe cases as a whole in a similarly swift and secretive manner. I cannot join the court in concealing this important litigation from public view."
The John Doe case will now go behind closed doors and will be considered by four justices elected by massive WMC ad buys, as my colleague Brendan Fischer has detailed. WMC has spent at least $7.25 million electing the court's right-wing majority, based on its own estimates.
State prosecutors have asked these justices to recuse themselves, but they have failed to take any action. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law submitted an amicus brief on behalf of legal ethicists urging conflicted Wisconsin Supreme Court justices to do the right thing: "The U.S. Constitution requires judges to step aside from cases when there is a serious risk that campaign spending will impact their ability to faithfully apply the law to the facts before them."
But the issue is still unresolved due in part to the fact that the recusal rules were literally written by WMC and passed by the right-wing majority in 2010.
If the court secretly rules in favor of the Walker campaign, WMC, WiCFG, and the other John Doe defendants, Wisconsin's system of justice will have been upended in a power coup that would make Richard III proud.
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
Abrahamson ran as chief justice and was elected by the voters in 2009. She is as sharp as a tack and is the most published state jurist in the nation, and her awards and accolades are legion. If the amendment were not a partisan attack, it would have been written to allow her to fulfill her whole term as chief justice to 2019.
Bill Raftery, who is an analyst at the National Center for State Courts, an independent clearinghouse for research on state courts says the situation is unprecedented. "It's atypical where the selection of the chief justice stands alone on the ballot," he said. "I can't remember a time where it has occurred."
The extraordinary expenditure a week before a vote that is likely to go their way signals how desperate the corporate lobby is to get rid of any impediment to their agenda. The Wisconsin GOP is also proposing to "reform" the nonpartisan elections board that sparked the investigation and is busily rewriting the John Doe statutes so that no politician will ever be subject to another.
Comically, a WMC TV ad equates the seniority of an official elected by the voters four times with monarchy.
"In a monarchy, power is inherited," intones the narrator. "But in a democracy we get to decide. You might be surprised to learn that on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, power is inherited. The job of chief justice goes to the judge that's been there the longest. That's not democratic, and it's not the American way."
But consolidating power to establish complete control over three branches of government and offing your opponents is the true sign of a monarchy run amok.
While Gov. Walker and his allies at WMC wish they could banish the chief justice to the Tower, Wisconsin voters may yet surprise.
Learn more about the effort to unseat Wisconsin's chief justice here. Learn more about the John Doe criminal case, which could destroy Wisconsin's campaign finance law by reading CMD's special report, here.