Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dark Comedy

New state rules requiring disclosure of interest group spending on election ads and who is funding the campaigning were supposed to take effect August 1. They now are on hold thanks to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Even though a federal court already had taken the case and started hearing it, our Supreme Court butted in and issued a temporary injunction preventing the state Government Accountability Board from enforcing the rules. In doing so the court not only overlooked a proposed settlement of a federal lawsuit under which the GAB clarified how it would enforce the rules, but ignored a legal principle known as comity, which discourages multiple courts from simultaneously considering the same issues.

You'd think the comic characters on our highest court would be familiar with comity, if for no other reason than if you say the word out loud it sounds a lot like comedy. But as Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote in her dissenting opinion, "Given that another court has already exercised jurisdiction and held hearings on the case, most courts would at least pause to consider the rule of comity. Unfortunately, in a rush to judgment, this court fails to even mention the rule of comity let alone honor it."

Justice Bradley also had choice words for the majority's decision to issue the injunction "even though the petitioners have not requested it. By issuing this temporary injunction, four justices go above and beyond the relief sought by the petitioners."

Sounds like the kind of judicial activism these justices all claim to be allergic to.

Then there's the question of conflict of interest, something the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel raised this morning in an editorial. As the newspaper noted, there "are justices who arguably owe their elections to the intercession of the kind of groups suddenly fearful of disclosure."

Indeed, such groups accounted for more than half of the spending on the 2007 Supreme Court election and outspent the candidates by a 4-1 margin in the 2008 race. The winners of those elections, Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman, have a vested interest in keeping the public from knowing too much about whose pocket they are in. So does David Prosser, who is up for reelection in 2011 and no doubt is counting on the help of the kind of groups that are fighting so doggedly to protect their ability to invisibly buy elections.

By siding with Ziegler, Gableman and Patience Roggensack in voting to block campaign disclosure, Prosser has gone all in with the big interest groups. After all, this latest action comes on the heels of his approval of new judicial ethics rules allowing Wisconsin judges to hear and rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters.

Ethics rules proposed by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Wisconsin Realtors Association, mind you.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Still Hiding After All These Years

Two groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum agree on one thing: Disclosure should be avoided at all costs.

The liberal One Wisconsin Now and the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth have joined forces to sue the state over new campaign finance disclosure rules that went into effect over the weekend. They'd obviously like to block these rules for the 2010 election season, if not for good.

It's hard to be against disclosure. That's undoubtedly why they are trying to claim that the rules approved by the state Government Accountability Board and reviewed by the Legislature are an unconstitutional violation of their free speech rights.

Never mind that the rules don't prevent them from airing any ad or otherwise spreading any message, but rather just require them to disclose how much they are spending and who's paying for it. They know that being for free speech is better than standing for secrecy, so they are relentlessly spinning this as a First Amendment case.

Their spin apparently made editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dizzy, causing them to slap a headline over reporter Jason Stein's story that bears no relationship whatsoever to reality. It says "Political opposites protest ad rules; They file joint suit over new restrictions."

Restrictions? What restrictions? What activity is banned by these rules? What is being limited? What ad can't be aired? What can't be said? The rules just require disclosure.

So why are these groups so deathly afraid of disclosure that they go to such extreme lengths to mislead people about what these new state rules actually do?

Look, disclosure of who's behind a message and who's paying for it immeasurably helps the audience decide how much stock to put in that message. If you are told that Frigidaire makes better kitchen appliances than Maytag, it's pretty important to know whether that opinion comes from Consumer Reports or Frigidaire.

Special interests that want to own our government know that if the electorate is made fully aware of who they are and where their money comes from, voters will be much less likely to buy what these groups are selling.

That's why operating in the shadows is so very important to them. But they can't very well come out and say so. So after exploiting loopholes in the law for years to keep their election activities hidden from public view, now they are using the First Amendment to keep their true motives for working to keep those loopholes open a secret.

How terribly fitting.