Republican donors spend big to influence Wisconsin appeals courts

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Last fall, the Wisconsin 3rd District Court of Appeals canceled an order from Governor Tony Evers who limited the indoor capacity of restaurants. In April, a seat on the Wausau-based tribunal is up for grabs, and the conservative-aligned candidate has attracted more than $ 120,000 in donations as well as institutional support from the Republican state apparatus.

This candidate, judge of the Outagamie County Circuit Court Greg gill, says it’s not for sale – but donations and backing from high-level conservatives show the state’s Republican Party is seeking to influence lower state courts.

For more than a decade, the two main political parties have fought proxy battles over the Ideological bias of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. This war moves to the courts of appeal as Republicans see a new front to win political battles in the justice system.

“I would probably call it judicial economic fallout in a sense,” says John Blakeman, a political scientist at UW-Stevens Point. “They see the importance of a state supreme court, but also the importance and their ability to perhaps influence the intermediate courts of appeal and then the lower trial courts of the state. I shouldn’t say that the conservative donors, the more liberal donors, are also going to notice this. “

In just six years, the cost of an election for a seat on the Wisconsin court of appeals has increased by more than 700%.

In races like these that don’t get a lot of public attention, it doesn’t take a lot of money to run a campaign that influences enough voters in an election with low turnout and the end result. is a public that trusts the judiciary less. independence.

“The idea that these races are non-partisan is gone at this point,” says David Canon, political scientist at UW-Madison. “The problem with this, of course, is that it undermines our confidence in the impartiality of the courts. The government likes to believe in this image of blind justice, it is the image we would like to have of the courts. With that kind of money pouring into these lower court races as well, it is more difficult to maintain that image of impartial justice. “

Gill received a donation of $ 5,000 – the maximum allowed by state law – from Richard Uihlein, a Republican donor whose company is located in Wisconsin and has donated over $ 4 million to a group that played a major role in the January 6 uprising on the United States Capitol.

Jean Menard, owner of the home improvement chain, which has donated millions to groups supporting former Governor Scott Walker’s fight against a recall, donated $ 1,000 to Gill’s campaign.

Gill has received the endorsement of dozens of prominent Republican officials, including US Representative Mike Gallagher, State Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) and former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. He was also supported by conservative groups including Right to Life Wisconsin and several County Republican parties.

He appeared at a rally in Eau Claire with former congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden, who ran as a Republican against U.S. Representative Ron Kind and lost, and dozens of local MPs Republican prosecutors and the sheriffs approved it.

Gill says he’s proud of the endorsements he’s received, touting those from appellate and trial judges statewide. He also says that the six-figure fundraiser is a reflection of how expensive it is to campaign – not a sign of how he will decide issues in front of him.

“I want the parties to know that they are going to get A. fair treatment, and B. just because I was fortunate enough to have a contribution to the campaign does not amount to patronage in court,” he said. Gill said at a virtual candidate forum. February 18. “I don’t think there is room for it.”

“I never made any promises other than to serve admirably and with character,” he continued. “I never promised that a contribution would lead to a favorable outcome. “

Gill’s opponent, criminal defense attorney from Wausau Rick cveykus, is far behind in the battle for campaign contributions.

During the last deposit period, January 1 to February 1, Gill contributed $ 43,000 in donations while Cveykus only received $ 1,305. Cveykus took out several personal loans, totaling $ 40,000, just to keep pace.

Lawyer Rick Cveykus is largely overwhelmed in the race for a seat in the 3rd Wisconsin Court of Appeals. (Rick for Wisconsin)

In the virtual candidate forum, Cveykus said so much money poured into an appeals court race can only mean that donors are looking for a friendly judge on the bench.

“When people give you that much money, they can expect something,” he said. “When you start to see six-figure contributions in a campaign, there’s a reason for that. “

“So what concerns me… is that you received money from John Menard, you received money from the owners of Uline,” Cveykus continued. “They expect something in return. You’re talking about people who have a far-right agenda in the state of Wisconsin… when they put that money into a campaign, they want to know where their money is going and I think people here too.

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Gill’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

For the few progressives watching this race, the imbalance in institutional support is concerning, although members of the region’s legal community say they don’t see Gill having the hard line his donations and endorsements would make him.

“If people think they are supporters of Judge Gill, I think it might be inappropriate,” said Christine Bremer Muggli, Wausau lawyer and Democratic activist. “I don’t think I would be afraid to get a fair place with him. I think it’s sad that the Republican Party is putting that kind of money into an appeal race thinking they might have a place that is friendly to them.

But other Wisconsin progressives see the Republican Party going unchallenged as it asserts its influence over another part of state government.

“Republicans have lost two of the last three Supreme Court races,” said Sachin Chheda, a Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist who oversaw the campaigns of Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky. “There is a certain feeling that the progressives, who have a different view of how the judiciary should work, have been bottom-up.”

“You also have Governor Evers who sets up a lot of meetings,” he continues. “So you see the Republicans saying ‘Hey there will be more Supreme Court races,’ and they don’t want the next level of the court system to be dominated by Evers appointees and progressives. Their donors and political network are attentive and engage in these higher level races. Democrats, or progressives, just don’t care the same way. “

The Wisconsin Republican and Democratic parties did not respond to requests for comment.

Plan of the third district court
The 3rd District Court of Appeals covers all of northern Wisconsin. (Wisconsin court system)

The 3rd District Court of Appeals covers northern Wisconsin and is the largest of the state’s four appeal districts – covering 35 of the state’s 72 counties. Three judges, Deputy Chief Lisa Stark, Thomas Hruz and Mark Seidl, currently sit on the tribunal.

In October, when the court ruled 2-1 to overturn Evers’ order restricting restaurant capacity, Hruz and Seidl formed a majority with Stark dissenting. Both Stark and Hruz were nominated by Walker and were subsequently re-elected.

Bremer Muggli says if the Republicans try to shore up a friendly 3-0 court that they can use to bring controversial cases, they might not find what they are looking for.

“Forum shopping is real and it happens,” says Bremer Muggli, who has supported Cveykus. “But with Judge Stark as Chief Justice, she’s a strong and independent judge. I think it will keep partisanship out.

The race between Gill and Cveykus aims to fill the seat currently held by Seidl, who was elected in 2015 and is not running for another term. In that race, Seidl won 57% of the vote after collecting just $ 11,576.82. Her opponent, Kristina Bourget, raised just over $ 10,000.

Conservative Division in District Two

The 3rd District isn’t the only appeals court election contested this spring. The 2nd District, based in Waukesha and covering the counties surrounding Milwaukee, is also disputed – although the differences are not so clearly drawn alongside partisan lines.

This race opposes the titular judge Jeff Davis against the judge Shelley grogan, Judicial Assistant to Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley.

Davis was appointed by Evers but has the endorsement of Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and Justice Annette Ziegler. Grogan – the most overtly ideological of the two candidates – was supported by former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Bradley and former judge Daniel Kelly.

While the partisan lines in the District Two race are not the same, the money is. Grogan has raised over $ 90,000, including donations of up to $ 5,000 from Uihlein and his wife, Elizabeth. Davis, meanwhile, raised $ 27,000 but topped it off with $ 105,000 in personal loans.

Now that the partisan dam has been broken, the temperature in Wisconsin court races is unlikely to drop.

“Those days are gone, if you look at how our race for the Supreme Court went, it is impossible to be neutral,” said Bremer Muggli. “The courts have become a governing branch… It is very important that the members of the court can look at the law and do what they think is the right thing. ”

The spring election to determine who will sit in state appeals courts, as well as a number of trial courts, is set for April 6.

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