What do Michael Gableman and Randy Koschnick have in common? A lot. Both grew up in the Milwaukee area. Graduated from the same law school. Became circuit court judges in small rural counties. Virtually indistinguishable judicial philosophies. Same physical build, for crying out loud.
Both developed a desire to sit on the state Supreme Court, and articulated almost identical reasons for their aspirations. But that's where their stories begin to diverge.
Gableman, of course, won his election and claimed a seat on the high court. Koschnick appears to stand no chance. He has almost no money and his opponent, incumbent Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, has raised over $1 million. Even a poll by a newly created right-wing group shows him running almost 30 points behind.
So what sets apart Koschnick and Gableman, these virtual clones? Other than the fact that Koschnick is actually the far more polished candidate of the two, the one big difference is that Gableman had three special interest groups and about $2.7 million of their money going for him.
While the 2007 and 2008 Supreme Court races made most every legal professional cringe and citizens of just about every stripe recoil in horror, this year's race is turning out to be an equally vivid illustration of the extent of special interest control over the fate of those who aspire to sit on Wisconsin's highest court.
I say that not only because of what was done for Gableman but is being denied his twin. I say it also because of the campaign Abrahamson is waging. As I pointed out in a recent newspaper commentary, the looming threat of another special interest hijacking surely lit a fire under the chief justice hot enough to inspire her campaign to raise funds with such vigor that she long ago surpassed the seven-figure mark. She saw that a few interest groups did almost all of the TV advertising in last year's high court contest and controlled most of what voters were able to read, see and hear about the candidates. She understandably wanted no part of a similar fate.
But all those donations will come back to bite her. At least some of her biggest donors will inevitably stand before her in court one day. And perfectly legitimate questions about whether she can rule fairly and impartially on those cases will arise.
Which is why this year's election may well turn out to be every bit as powerful a case study in why we need Supreme Court election reform in the worst way.