Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson
MADISON -- Wisconsin's Chief Justice told legislators yesterday she supports a proposed law for taxpayers to foot the bill for future state Supreme Court elections. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who was first elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1976, told a state campaign-finance committee she believed public funding could help overcome a misconception that campaign donations sway judicial decisions. Legislation to introduce public campaign-funding in Wisconsin for elections to Supreme Court and Governor was brought to the statehouse Monday. A similar move was defeated two years ago. The Chief Justice told the Committee On Campaign Finance Reform, Rural Issues and Information Technology that high-spending judicial campaigns raise the public's perception of possible contributor influence. "We should try to ensure that campaign financing does not undermine the public trust and confidence in our judiciary and system of government," she said. This is an apparent reference to the recent record-spending Wisconsin Supreme Court race between conservative Annette Ziegler, the eventual winner, and liberal Linda Clifford. Overall campaign spending is estimated to have topped $6 million. Disquiet during the campaign at the amounts supposedly being spent prompted Democrats Gordon Hintz and Steve Hilgenberg to propose public funding of judicial elections. They offered Supreme Court hopefuls to tap as much as $300,000 per general election. The present bill creates a so-called "Clean Election Fund" which candidates could qualify for by obtaining a certain number of small donation, local media reported. Abrahamson warned lawmakers that such laws create "legal and policy challenges" because of Constitutional free speech issues and the difficulty in encouraging judicial candidates to take public funding.