Home / News / News Features / The Corporate Blueprint

The Corporate Blueprint

How big business buys state Supreme Court justices

Mar. 26, 2008
Google plus Linkedin Pinterest

The plotline for the dramatic state Supreme Court race between Justice Louis Butler and conservative Burnett County Judge Michael Gableman, heavily shaped by sleazy, corporate-financed ads portraying Butler as the criminal’s best friend, sounds straight out of a John Grisham legal thriller.

That’s no coincidence, since Grisham clearly based his latest novel, The Appeal, on a growing pattern of state Supreme Court campaigns in which corporate lobbies have successfully targeted progressive state Supreme Court justices because of verdicts that affect their profit margins.

As in Grisham’s book, corporations have recognized that the public won’t support a separate standard of justice for CEOs. So businesses have instead spent huge sums on the issue of crime and alleged “soft” treatment of child molesters by the targeted candidate in state after state, with Wisconsin being the latest example.

“Wisconsin’s judicial campaigns are setting a new national standard for ugly ads and mindless political warfare,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan group that tracks judicial politics. “Courts are supposed to be accountable to the law, not political operatives.”

Certainly the ugliest of the ads was aired March 14 by Gableman, drawing almost-universal condemnation from judicial watchdogs, the media and even his allies for its misleading portrayal of Butler’s role as a defense attorney. The bipartisan watchdog group Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee (WJCIC) urged Gableman to pull the ad from the airwaves, condemned its false statements and compared it to the infamous 1988 “Willie Horton” ad.

While Gableman’s campaign sponsored this dishonest ad, Justice At Stake found that an incredible 95% of the spending on TV ads for the campaign has come from so-called “independent” groups paying for “issue ads.” Groups airing issue ads are not required, under current Wisconsin law, to disclose the amount of their spending or the source of their funds.

Wisconsin law has long prohibited direct corporate contributions into campaigns, but the “issue ad” provision creates a loophole providing near-complete secrecy. Moreover, this also means that the sources and extent of spending by out-of-state corporations remains unknown. That allows out-of-state corporations and individuals to determine the tone and content of state Supreme Court campaigns—and perhaps even who is elected to the state’s highest court.

Nearly $1.6 million was spent in Wisconsin between Feb. 20 and March 16, according to a study by Justice At Stake. Of the ad spending, about $1 million has been spent by corporate-oriented groups opposing Butler as “soft” on crime, including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the Club for Growth and the Coalition for America’s Families. One liberal group independent of the Butler campaign, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, has spent $408,293 attacking Gableman.

The Corporate Blueprint for Buying the Supreme Court
The corporate game-plan now visible in the effort to unseat Justice Butler has been perfected by top business leaders and right-wing foundations over the last decade by a coalition of corporate and right-wing groups working to influence Supreme Court elections in numerous other states. In brief, the corporations’ strategic template includes: Careful monitoring of Supreme Court judges’ verdicts. The Koch Foundation, drawing its wealth from a Kansas-based oil and gas corporation, issues report cards for Supreme Court justices.

Enticing justices to conservative training sessions. Justices and their spouses are offered free trips to posh resorts to hear lectures on the importance of “the free market system” to America, the Wall Street Journal reported. If indoctrination into right-wing thinking doesn’t work, then justices are targeted for defeat in the next election.

National coordination of targets and funding. The selection of targeted races and the direction of funds to specific state Supreme Court races are often facilitated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Overwhelming the opposition with TV ads. Pro-business and pro- Republican TV ads “dominated the airwaves in 2006,” New York University’s Brennan Center concluded in a 2006 report. “Probusiness groups were responsible for more than 90% of all special interest television announcements,” the center noted.

Exploiting voters’ fears of crime: While the agenda of corporate groups consists of items such as lower corporate taxes, less regulation and weaker standards for liability, they consistently rely on crime—particularly gruesome cases of child molesting—to drive their Supreme Court campaigns.

Wounded Policeman’s Brother Soft on Crime?
Some might find it hard to characterize Louis Butler, whose brother is a police officer who suffered a near-fatal gunshot wound to the head while on duty, as overly sympathetic to criminals.

Butler’s balanced approach to the law is reflected in his endorsement by more than 220 judges (compared to just 12 for Gableman) and backing by the state’s largest organizations of lawenforcement officers. But Butler’s real record hardly matters in an election where the ultimate goal of the corporate lobbies is to defeat Butler by any means necessary, even using the PR firm behind the outrageously false but effective “Swift Boat” ads of 2004.

While corporations can feel secure in their domination of the legislative process at the Capitol, the judicial branch, particularly the Supreme Court, is less predictable in its worship of corporate power. Gableman’s corporate allies know that their pro-business agenda won’t drive voters to the polls to elect their candidate. But fear will. So they spend enormous sums of money on TV ads suggesting that Butler is soft on crime.

Flood of National Right-Wing Money
The Club for Growth spent a reported $103,000 in late February for TV ads in the Milwaukee market that touted Gableman as tough on crime. But crime fighting is hardly central to the Club’s mission. The Club for Growth generally devotes most of its energy pursuing an agenda of tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy, prompting Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to dub them “the Club for Greed.”

Coalition for America’s Families (CAF), based in Virginia, is sponsoring ads contending that Butler “sided with criminals almost 60% of the time” in Supreme Court cases. The ad was pulled by WBAY in Green Bay when the station became concerned that it was false and defamatory. Contrary to the CAF ad, a Wisconsin Law Journal article showed Butler sided with the majority on criminal cases 89% of the time, the second-highest percentage among the seven justices.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) has sponsored a series of crime-oriented TV and radio “issue ads” and a series of statewide meetings to mobilize its members behind Gableman. Observers estimate the group will easily top the $2 million it spent to support Justice Annette Ziegler’s campaign for the court.

Also weighing in on Gableman’s side is a radical right-wing judicial group, the Federalist Society, which is financing an effort by its Wisconsin members to undermine the credibility of the Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee (WJCIC) because the bipartisan committee has chastised Gableman so strongly for unethical tactics. To gain media attention for the attacks on the WJCIC, the Federalist Society has hired none other than the Virginia-based CRC Public Relations firm, which produced deceptive ads in 2004 on behalf of the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” that questioned the heroism of thrice-wounded Vietnam veteran John Kerry.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.


Would white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan pose the same threat they do now if a mainstream Republican were president instead of Donald Trump?

Getting poll results. Please wait...