Thomas J. Moyer: Wisconsin has chance to improve faith in courts

Thomas J. Moyer: Wisconsin has chance to improve faith in courts

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer endorses Wisconsin’s plan to establish a voluntary public financing system for races for the state’s highest court and enhance public confidence in the judicial system.

Wisconsin is now grappling with a national trend — a rise in special interest pressure on judicial races.

Establishing a voluntary public financing system for races for the state’s highest court would enhance public confidence in the judicial system and protect judges from both the reality and perception of undue influence. As in many other states, including my own state of Ohio, public confidence in the courts is being threatened under the weight of more aggressive, partisan and expensive judicial elections.

Interest group campaign contributions have caused judicial candidate fundraising to skyrocket all across the country. In 2006, fundraising records were broken in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Oregon and Washington. In 2007, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania joined the list of states setting fundraising records by candidates for their highest court. In other words, this is a national trend.

In Ohio, where I have served as chief justice since 1987, election to the Supreme Court now routinely costs at least $1 million. Candidates have little choice but to raise funds from attorneys and others who may later have cases in our court, creating the perception of a conflict of interest in many minds.

Reform opportunities do not come along often, but Wisconsin appears to have a real chance. Late last year, partially in response to a record-breaking campaign, all seven members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court signed a letter supporting a voluntary public financing program. The people who know this problem best are asking for help.

North Carolina adopted public financing for appellate court campaigns a few years ago. It’s been a popular program, both with candidates and with the voters. North Carolina proved that public financing of court campaigns can help those races remain civil and informative. Following its lead, New Mexico passed a similar law that becomes effective this year.

Justice at Stake, a national nonpartisan organization on whose board I am pleased to serve, recently conducted a poll of voters that showed Wisconsinites see judicial campaign finance reform as a key priority: 77 percent agreed that, regardless of other important issues facing the state (and there are many, of course), the Legislature should act to reform the financing of judicial races before the next election.

The same poll showed that 75 percent support the public financing alternative, which would free candidates for the Wisconsin Supreme Court from the unseemly fundraising routines they face now. That demonstrates strong, bipartisan support for change. Wisconsin has a unique opportunity to establish itself as a national leader in keeping its courts fair and impartial by joining this growing movement of states that refuse to let public confidence be shaken any further. Public financing for court elections would make sure that judges can stay accountable to the law and constitutions, and that their decisions are believed to be derived from fundamental principles of impartiality and fairness.

Thomas J. Moyer, a Republican, is chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio and a board member of the Justice at Stake Campaign. This column was provided via the Wisconsin Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization.