The high cost of a high court seat in Wisconsin

A post-election tally of documented spending in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race shows total spending rose to at least $4,369,787  for a single seat.

The analysis was of state disclosures and television advertising by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

Incumbent Rebecca Bradley defeated State Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg on April 5.

Bradley’s campaign received a boost from the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, an outside group that has spent an estimated $1,851,710 on television ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

Bradley’s campaign also benefited from $114,049 in other advertising by the Republican State Leadership Committee, the biggest multi-state spender in supreme court races in the 2013-14 cycle.

An outside group supporting Judge Kloppenburg, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, spent $381,360 on television ads according to Kantar Media/CMAG. The Greater Wisconsin Committee also spent $107,323 on other advertising.

The ads can be viewed on the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time” website. Spending estimates are current through April 5.

“Wisconsin is a perfect example of the politicized, high-cost judicial elections we’ve been seeing around the country,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and co-author of Bankrolling the Bench, a report on spending in the 2013-14 judicial elections by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “The candidates were backed by groups that don’t have to disclose their donors, raising concerns about conflicts of interest and leaving the public in the dark about who is seeking to shape Wisconsin’s courts. In Wisconsin and around the country, campaign finance and judicial recusal rules have not kept pace with how these races are increasingly run.”

“Once again, we’ve seen a state Supreme Court race in which outside spenders pouring cash into TV ad campaigns have possibly made a significant difference in the outcome,” said Susan Liss, executive director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that tracks spending in judicial races and advocates for fair and impartial courts. “So far 2016 is off to a very rough start, as we’ve seen outside groups spend heavily and succeed in defeating two Supreme Court candidates in Arkansas, with the same thing happening in Wisconsin just weeks later. This doesn’t bode well for the judicial elections ahead this year.”

According to Bankrolling the Bench, outside spending by special interest groups was 29 percent of total spending in the 2013-14 cycle, which was a record high. In this year’s Wisconsin race, outside spending was 56 percent of total spending.

Reported fundraising by the two spring election candidates totaled a combined $1,610,115 according to state disclosures.

Total spending

Including the primary election, total reported candidate fundraising reached $1,915,346, as follows:

Bradley: $861,424

Kloppenburg: $748,690

Donald (primary only): $305,231