Wisconsin justices reward their donors with a ruling that creates a lawless playing field for political campaigns

WiG editorial

It came as no surprise when the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided to end a John Doe investigation into the illegal coordination of fundraising activities between Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 re-election campaign and the independent “dark money” groups that support him. After all, the court’s conservative majority had collected $8 million in donations from the political groups being probed.

The decision overturned a state law banning the coordination of fundraising and campaign activities between political groups.

In the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Citizens United, political groups were empowered to raise limitless funds from anonymous sources. But campaigns are still subject to a law placing limits on how much an individual can give to them directly. In making the dividing line between campaigns and dark money groups porous, Wisconsin’s high court exponentially amplified the impact of Citizens United in the state.

Now, almost anything goes for political campaigns in Wisconsin. This is the culmination of years of Republicans notching away at laws designed to curb the influence of money in politics.

To be clear, the law was firmly on the side of the John Doe prosecutors, who contended that when Walker directed donors to contribute money to the Koch-brothers’-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth instead of directly to his campaign, they were illegally coordinating. But in a majority opinion that seems to have been written in the Twilight Zone, Gableman denied that the law banning advocacy groups from coordinating with campaigns could have existed, because it would have violated donors’ freedom of speech.

It’s unclear whether the ruling will have much impact. The law was already hazy.  Illegal coordination has been going on all along, and authorities have simply ignored it.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, recently introduced a bill to more effectively ban coordination between super PACs and political candidates by strengthening the definition of “coordination.” We trust that Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin will support the bill, and we urge concerned citizens to barrage Sen. Ron Johnson with calls to do them same.

But Gableman’s opinion does bring campaign coordination out of the closet. Candidates in the state no longer have to fake playing by the rules, which will make them bolder and more audacious than ever in manipulating elections.

It’s worth noting that Gableman also ordered the destruction of all the records that prosecutors painstakingly gathered for the case at taxpayer expense. He not only had his benefactors’ backs, but Walker’s as well, shielding him from potentially damaging revelations.

A pattern is emerging among Republican corporatists like the court’s judicial shills. If they don’t like a law, a policy or an agency, they simply cut it out of the picture like a philandering ex-husband.

The ruling in this case mirrors recent efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to eliminate the pesky Government Accountability Board, the Legislative Audit Bureau and even the state’s open records law. Those proposals were dropped after stirring unforeseen public outrage, but they’re still in the works, waiting for a more opportune moment.

Gableman topped off his ruling with a dollop of shameless ass-kissing. He praised the defendants in the case for their bravery in filing a self-serving lawsuit to further their influence over public policy. He contorted the greediest and shadiest of political players into champions of free speech.

Is it a coincidence that two of those defendants spent a total of $2.25 million helping to elect Gableman, who was deemed unqualified by several legal groups and ran a racist campaign ad so misleading that it spurred a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission and Citizen Action of Wisconsin?

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that’s what we have in Wisconsin. Until the iron-clad rule of corporatist Republicans is broken, we expect more chipping away of campaign rules and sunshine laws until there’s nothing left — or until people start paying attention and demand reform.