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State of Wisconsin

Judicial Campaigns and Elections: Wisconsin

Campaign Financing

In 2009, the Impartial Justice bill was signed into law, creating a public financing system for judicial elections. The program provides up to $400,000 of initial public financing for supreme court candidates. In order to qualify for public financing, judicial candidates would have to raise $5,000 to $15,000 in donations ranging from $5 to $100. They would then receive $100,000 for the primary election and $300,000 for the general election. If an opponent or opponents decline public financing and outspend other candidates, those opting for public financing would be eligible for up to $300,000 more for the primary and $900,000 more for the general election.

The law also reduces contribution limits for candidates who opt out of public financing from $10,000 to $1,000.

According to a study of Wisconsin Supreme Court elections from 1989 to 1999 conducted by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the average amount of funds raised by a supreme court candidate increased threefold during this period, from $194,642 in 1989 to $656,202 in 1999. The candidates themselves accounted for 26.4% of these funds. Every successful candidate received a contribution from an attorney or litigant who later appeared before the court, and 75% of the court's cases during this time involved one or more campaign contributors. Click here for the complete report.

Wisconsin has offered partial public financing for major state offices, including the supreme court, since 1976. The system is funded through a $1 state tax return checkoff, and 8% is earmarked for grants to supreme court candidates in years when there is a supreme court race. Taxpayer participation has declined over the years, and some candidates have turned down public funds in recent elections. In 1999, the Wisconsin Commission on Judicial Elections and Ethics recommended that all appellate court races be fully funded. A number of groups are working to accomplish campaign finance reform, including Wisconsin Citizen Action, Common Cause in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Public financing legislation passed the senate in 2000 and again in 2008 but stalled in the assembly. According to a 2008 poll conducted by the Justice at Stake Campaign, 65% of Wisconsin voters supported public financing for supreme court candidates, and 77% agreed that the legislature and the governor needed to take action on judicial campaign reform before the next election.

In 2008, the Midwest Democracy Network and the Justice at Stake Campaign released a report on recent judicial elections in five Midwestern states, including Wisconsin. Click here to read “The New Politics of Judicial Elections in the Great Lakes States, 2000-2008.”

See below for National Institute on Money in State Politics data on contributions to state high court candidates.

Amounts raised by each candidate at the most recent election cycle:

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