"A cornerstone of our state is that the judiciary is fair, neutral, impartial and non-partisan," wrote Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson and the six other justices.
"The risk inherent in any non-publicly funded judicial election for this Court is that the public may inaccurately perceive a justice as beholden to individuals or groups that contribute to his or her campaign. Judges must not only be fair, neutral, impartial and non-partisan but also should be so perceived by the public."
The justices stopped short of endorsing any particular legislation on public financing. They also said their support for public financing for Supreme Court races does not mean that they necessarily support the same for other offices.
The recent nasty Supreme Court race between Justice Annette Ziegler and Madison attorney Linda Clifford broke spending records. Some $5.8 million was spent on the campaign, most of it by outside groups.
The massive mudslinging between Ziegler and Clifford prompted the State Bar of Wisconsin to form a bipartisan judicial campaign watchdog committee.
In addition to educating the public about the unique roles and responsibilities of judges, the committee will actively and publicly seek pledges from candidates to adhere to the Judicial Code of Conduct (adopted by the state Supreme Court), which defines permissible judicial campaign activities. The committee will also review judicial campaign materials produced by candidates and their supporters, either on complaint or their own initiative, to determine if any such materials violate the code by, for example:
- Partisan political activity;
- Conduct that undermines the integrity and independence of the judiciary;
- Promises and commitments that are inconsistent with impartial justice; or
- Knowingly misrepresenting facts concerning a candidate or opponent.