Building a Court They Can Bend to Their Will: Scott Walker and His Big Business Funders Undermine the Independence of the Wisconsin Judiciary

04/09/2015 10:08 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

It hasn't gotten a lot of attention outside Wisconsin, but if you want to see what a President Scott Walker might try to do to an independent federal judiciary, check out what Governor Scott Walker is doing to the Wisconsin judiciary -- including through a crucial referendum vote Tuesday.

Walker and his big business funders have taken a series of steps to undermine the judicial branch in Wisconsin -- just as the state's Supreme Court is about to take up a case involving a criminal investigation of Walker and some of those same funders. In short, Walker and his friends are setting out to create a court they can bend to their will.

On the surface, what happened yesterday looks like just a small change in how the Wisconsin Supreme Court chooses a chief justice. In fact, it's much more.

The referendum was rushed onto the spring-election ballot when little else was up for a vote, guaranteeing a low turnout. And Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), a group aptly described by the Center for Media and Democracy as "Wisconsin's premier lobby for corporate tax breaks and low-wage jobs," poured in $600,000 at the last minute to back the measure.

The result: One of America's finest jurists may no longer be Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. For 126 years the chief justice has been chosen by seniority. Under that system, Shirley Abrahamson has held that post since 1996. In Wisconsin, Supreme Court justices are elected -- and the voters reelected Abrahamson to another 10-year term as Chief Justice in 2009. But now the state constitution has been amended so the justices will elect their chief. Chief Justice Abrahamson has filed a lawsuit to retain her position as Chief Justice for the remainder of her current term. Thanks to massive expenditures by groups such as WMC, which has spent at least $5.5 million on Supreme Court races since 2007, there is a conservative majority on the court -- likely guaranteeing that, unless Abrahamson's lawsuit succeeds, there will be a conservative chief justice at the helm.

But that's just the beginning. There's another backdoor effort underway to force Abrahamson off the court entirely by setting a mandatory retirement age of 75. Abrahamson is 81, and the people of Wisconsin reelected her to serve for four more years.

And there's more:

The conservative majority on the court lowered the court's conflict-of-interest standards. They approved changes in requirements for when justices must "recuse" themselves -- that is, decline to participate in a case. Now special interests can appear before judges to whom they've made campaign contributions -- and they can give money to judges even as those judges are presiding over cases to which the donors are parties.

The changes were written by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

All this happened as a criminal investigation involving Governor Walker's efforts to beat back a recall campaign is making its way through the courts. The issue is whether Walker's campaign illegally coordinated efforts with outside groups -- including, yes, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Later this month the Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to decide if that investigation can continue.

It should come as no surprise that a majority of the justices received big campaign contributions from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. But now they don't have to recuse themselves. And in an unprecedented move, the conservative majority decided that there will be no oral arguments. The justices will meet and decide in secret.

That's still not the end of it. As we noted in a recent report:

As he ramps up for a potential presidential run in 2016, Walker is using his executive budget to take control of judicial salaries; disband the independent council that advises all branches of state government on court practice and procedure; and weaken the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, the state body charged with investigating judicial ethics violations and recommending discipline.

This would be shameful in any state. But it is particularly egregious in Wisconsin. For decades, Wisconsin inspired the nation by setting standards for integrity and fairness in government that were second to none. But Governor Walker and his allies have forced their agenda upon all branches of government. There is no separation of powers in Wisconsin.