This week, Michael Gableman celebrated a considerable victory: the first defeat of an incumbent judge in 40 years for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. His opponent Louis Butler was also the first African American on the Court. Yet, the $5 million race shows the steady trend toward high-priced campaigns to change the make-up of courts by legal and corporate interests.
By any measure, the $5 million race was both excessive and abusive.
One of Gableman’s ads falsely implied that Butler had gotten out of jail a convicted rapist who then committed a second sexual assault. (In fact, the second assault occurred after the man served his full sentence.) Another ad by the pro-Butler teachers union accused Gableman of sentencing child sex offenders far below the maximum, but it used the example of an offender who received a higher sentence than the one the prosecutor recommended.
Judicial races now cost an average of $243,910. “In 2006, five of the 10 states with private financing set spending records, including Alabama, which raised $13.4 million in five state Supreme Court races, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Outside groups have added to these amounts, spending 2½ times more on television ads in the 2004 and 2006 cycles than in the previous two. And increasingly, this money is coming from the business community, which represented 44 percent of all campaign money—twice the percentage of donations from lawyers, according to the Brennan Center.”
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These controversies greatly undermine the credibility of the courts and the legal system as a whole. The question is whether states are willing to look at other options than direct election of judges to guarantee greater independence and ethics.