Monday, January 25, 2010

Campaign reform magi

By Bill Kraus

Not under anyone’s Christmas tree, but a welcome gift to all of us is something called the impartial justice law. It came from the governor, the Legislature, a motley collection of reformers, and mostly from the current justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

What the law does is provide enough public money to fully fund campaigns for the Supreme Court to candidates who agree to abide by the adequate but far from obscene spending limits mandated by the statute.

The desirable side effects are that taking advantage of the law’s provisions shields candidates for the court from the onerous business of fund raising which has the additional desirable side effect of simultaneously getting rid of any suspicion that the funders they no longer have to solicit may be buying something more with their contributions than a talented judiciary.

There have been enough questions raised in judicial elections around the country to cast a shadow over the objectivity of those elections, to raise doubts about the independence of judges elected with money raised from private sources.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was alarmed enough by this trend to tour the country urging states that elect judges to change their laws so judges are appointed not elected.

When she was in Wisconsin this year making the case for an appointed judiciary she was surprised and pleased to learn about what the latter day magi mentioned earlier had wrought here.

The gift will be on display for the first time in the spring Supreme Court election. The several candidates who have announced their candidacy have said they will accept the public funding and abide by the spending limits.

This should result in lower profile, less-intrusive campaigning which focuses on the character and credentials of the contenders not on a result that large contributors are seeking.

The larger question that may be answered next winter and spring is whether this campaign will be so salutary that the model will be extended by popular demand into the partisan, ideologue-ridden, nasty elections scheduled for the fall of 2012.

The great political sage and former member of the Assembly and head of the state’s Department of Public Instruction, Bert Grover, has been telling us all along that nothing will happen to the way we run elections until “we get Mathilda on the dance floor.”

When we see what kind of elections the impartial justice model (Mathilda) produces, and if we like what we see, we will have a model to follow and adopt to replace what went on in 2010. Most voters and observers characterized what went on this year as too expensive, too long, too negative, somewhere between disgusting and hateful. Mathilda, if she can dance the way we hope and expect, can show us some steps to learn and follow that will produce a more civilized election process.

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