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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Liberals Need to Take Court Races as Seriously as Corporations Do

GavelThe Wisconsin Supreme Court race stretched out through the night and into the early morning. By the time I finally hung it up at about two, it was already clear that a recount was in the cards. As it stands as of this writing, JoAnne Kloppenburg leads incumbent David Prosser -- 739,574 to 739,350. In other words, by next to nothing. Associated Press reports that three precincts are still out -- two in Kloppenburg dominated Milwaukee County and one in Prosser-heavy Jefferson County. So, right now, it seems that Kloppenburg will keep her slim lead and, perhaps, expand on it. Or not. Who even knows?

But it pays to remember that Prosser originally dominated this race with 55% of the primary vote. That means he's gone from shoe-in to losing, if only by a handful of votes. Prosser was going to win this in a walk, then everything got turned on its head. Republican over-reach comes with a price for conservatives.

Despite Prosser's complaints that he was attacked by special interests, Kloppenburg backers were outspent, making this the most costly Supreme Court race in Wisconsin history. Outspent and against a candidate who looked like a sure winner, Kloppenburg was able to close the gap and -- if barely -- overcome it.


It shows the left finally realizing that judges matter. It's one area that liberals have ignored, while conservatives have concentrated on it. Part of this is because of the support the right gets from religious whackjobs, who look to the courts to overturn abortion laws and rule against gay rights cases. And part of it comes from big business, who seek to buy outcomes by cherrypicking pro-corporate activists to sit on benches around the nation.

I said it yesterday and I'll say it again -- the idea that an elected office is nonpolitical is untrue. If Supreme Court races were run with any sort of connection to legal reality, judicial candidates would not promise to be "tough on crime." One, it betrays a bias against the accused, which is especially galling when they refuse to say how they'd rule on other cases, and two, criminal cases only make up a small fraction of the rulings handed down by the courts. But I guess "I promise to be tough on abutments and easements" doesn't really have the same ring to it.

When outside business interests pour a substantial amount of money into a state Supreme Court race, they don't really have fair justice in mind. And a business based in Texas doesn't really care much if a candidate promises to be tough on Wisconsin crime. It's part of a politico-legal strategy to get away with as much as they can possibly get away with. When major polluters who've paid heavy fines give money to a judicial candidate, it's not a lot different from a crime syndicate doing the same. Both are organizations with a "troubled" legal history and both would have only one motive for their support -- they want to stop being troubled by the law. If they can't get legislators to give them a pass, they have the courts as backup.

So here's hoping that the Kloppenburg-Prosser race represents the first of many. Liberals need to realize that judgeships are political, because they've already been made political. And that's not likely to change. Full public financing of judicial elections would go a long way toward doing away with the political influence in court races, but that's not going to happen any time soon -- if ever.

Until we recognize that the courts are important political offices, conservatives will continue to dominate them, big money will continue to get a pass, and the average voter will keep seeing their relevance and influence in America dwindle.


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