Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Does Prosser Even Need To Ask?

The fate of state rules requiring disclosure of special interest election spending rests with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court is scheduled to hear the case early next month. Justice David Prosser has said he plans to participate in the case despite close personal and political ties to attorney Jim Troupis who is representing the tea party groups and conservative organizations like Americans for Prosperity that are challenging the rules.

Prosser acknowledges a longstanding friendship with Troupis. More importantly, Prosser's campaign paid the Troupis Law Office $75,000 to look out for his interests during the statewide recount that followed his narrow victory in this spring's Supreme Court election.

By the way, the Troupis Law Office is one of two firms with strong Republican ties that have run up a huge tab at taxpayer expense, billing the state more than $700,000 under no-bid contracts paying up to $395 an hour to represent Governor Scott Walker and GOP legislative leaders in defending the controversial collective bargaining law and state redistricting plan. It was Prosser who wrote the majority opinion upholding the law stripping most public workers of their collective bargaining rights. The ruling overturned a circuit court judge who had thrown out the law on the grounds that lawmakers ignored state Open Meetings Law requirements in acting on the bill and therefore it was illegally passed. With a presumably straight face, Prosser argued the judge was wrong to rely on laws that “apply to the Legislature except when the Legislature says they do not.”

Now, with all the appearances of coziness and the obvious conflict of interest that results from the Prosser campaign's payments to the Troupis Law Office, Justice Prosser is asking the parties involved in the state campaign finance disclosure case whether he should step aside from that case.

He shouldn't have to ask.

Wisconsin's Code of Judicial Conduct is clear-cut on the matter. It says "a judge shall recuse himself or herself in a proceeding when the facts and circumstances the judge knows or reasonably should know establish" that the "judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party's lawyer...." Or "when reasonable, well-informed persons knowledgeable about judicial ethics standards and the justice system and aware of the facts and circumstances the judge knows or reasonably should know would reasonably question the judge's ability to be impartial."

Three national experts on judicial ethics say it's a no-brainer. Prosser should recuse himself. These law professors from Hofstra University, New York University and Indiana University certainly qualify as reasonable, well-informed persons knowledgeable about judicial ethics standards and the justice system. And they all question Prosser's ability to be impartial in this case.

So do state newspapers including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Appleton Post-Crescent and the Oshkosh Northwestern, all of which have editorialized that Prosser should recuse himself. As have national papers like the New York Times.

Prosser has no business participating in this case. His ability to be impartial has been reasonably questioned. When that happens, the state judicial ethics code says a judge shall recuse. Not may. Shall.

If Prosser cannot follow clear ethics rules on his own, then the state Government Accountability Board whose disclosure rules are being challenged should insist that he does. That should happen if the state Justice Department attorneys who are representing the GAB and work under the direction of Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen do what is in the best interest of the people of Wisconsin and the public agency that is their client in this case.

That's a big if.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

It's Time For A Small-Donor Revolution

Wisconsin – and our entire country – needs a totally new approach to election financing.

In the senate recall elections, candidates are raising record sums of money, yet outside interest groups have a virtual monopoly on election advertising. In the current environment, candidates end up being twice cursed. The large sums of private special interest money they accept raise eyebrows to say the least. Most anyone paying attention reaches the unavoidable conclusion that they are beholden to – and corrupted by – their donors. But at the same time, all the tainted money candidates raise barely gets them noticed as their campaign messages are swamped by the advertising sponsored by outside interest groups. They end up bystanders in their own elections.

Wisconsin needs elections where candidates actually matter. That means candidates must have enough money to run competitively for state office. And enough to avoid being totally overwhelmed by outside groups.

But it’s not enough for them to have enough money. Wisconsin also needs an election financing system allowing candidates to remain relevant without creating an appearance of corruption or otherwise laying waste to public trust in the integrity of elected officials.

Traditional approaches to campaign finance reform – like the 34-year-old Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund or the year-old Impartial Justice Act that were just repealed – cannot possibly accomplish both of these goals. Public financing was traditionally provided to candidates who agreed to limit their spending. The availability of public financing does free candidates from the need to raise large amounts of private special interest money. But if that public financing comes with strings attached, namely spending limits, then candidates are hamstrung in their ability to respond to attacks by outside groups.

Both the Ellis-Erpenbach bill and the Impartial Justice Act made candidates eligible for extra public money known as “rescue funds” or “trigger matching funds” if they faced high-spending opponents. But the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down just such a provision in Arizona’s public financing program in its ruling in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett. As a result, any candidate agreeing to the spending limits in Ellis-Erpenbach or the Impartial Justice Act would be left at the mercy of the interest groups and would most likely wind up being a spectator on the sidelines in any competitive election.

Moreover, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission did away with any kind of limits on election spending for all intents and purposes. This ruling makes the spending limits that were part of traditional public financing programs obsolete.

For all of these reasons, it is abundantly clear that a new approach to election financing is required. For public financing to have a meaningful impact – or even relevance – in today’s elections, receiving public funds can no longer be conditioned on acceptance of spending limits. Public financing can and should help free candidates from heavy reliance on private special interest donations, but not at the cost of making candidates unilaterally disarm and become irrelevant participants in elections.

There is a way to keep candidates relevant but also free of undue special interest influence. A report from the national Campaign Finance Institute outlines the one constitutionally permissible form of public financing that can incentivize small-donor fundraising while not tying the hands of candidates by limiting their campaign spending.

With the dawn of Internet activism and online fundraising, a small-donor revolution became feasible. As the Web's political utility becomes more and more refined, small-donor-driven campaigns become more and more practical.

Look over CFI’s report and consider the dramatic impact a small-donor incentive program could have on Wisconsin’s elections. The Democracy Campaign has put forward a new approach to election financing for our state that is based on this model.

If this summer's recall elections have made anything clear, it's that election financing is in serious need of some major paradigm shifting.