And what it means for the probe into alleged campaign violations by Walker and conservative dark-money groups.
For three years, Wisconsin prosecutors have been investigating whether Republican Gov. Scott Walker broke campaign finance laws as he battled a 2012 recall effort sparked by his push for a law that undercut the power of public-sector unions. Prosecutors allege that Walker and his aides illegally coordinated with conservative groups that were raising money and running ads to support Walker and his Republican allies. At least one group at the center of the probe, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, has gone to court to stop the investigation. Its fate now rests with the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which will rule any day now on whether the inquiry can proceed.
But there’s a rub. Two key targets of the investigation—the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s leading business group—have spent more than $10 million since 2007 to elect a conservative majority to Wisconsin’s top court. Given their involvement in the investigation, and the Wisconsin Club for Growth’s position as a party to the case, good-government advocates question whether the four conservative justices elected with the help of these two groups should be presiding over the case.
The Wisconsin Club for Growth and WMC did not make direct contributions to the campaigns for these justices. Instead, they poured millions into so-called independent issue ads that clearly conveyed messages that supported these campaigns. And in an odd twist, due to lax recusal guidelines—which were adopted at the urging of one of these conservative outfits—these justices on the state’s high court are not compelled to sit out a case involving these two groups.
The Wisconsin Club for Growth and WMC are top players in a years-long undertaking by Walker and his allies to create a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that is friendly to conservative policies—an operation that has included spending millions on ads, ending public campaign financing for Supreme Court elections, rewriting the court’s ethics guidelines, and amending the state’s constitution. This effort has led to one of the most partisan and dysfunctional judicial bodies in the country, a court with liberal and conservative justices who won’t appear together in public. And it could well end up benefiting the conservative groups under investigation should the jurists they helped elect rule the probe should stop.
“This large amount of money and special interests has impacted the workings of the court, the reputation of the court, and how it’s interacting internally,” says former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who served on the court from 1993 to 1998.