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.

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