Republican donors spending big to influence Wisconsin’s courts of appeal
John Menard has given money to the conservative-aligned candidate in both of Wisconsin’s contested Court of Appeals races. (Travisvanvelzen | Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Last fall, Wisconsin’s 3rd District Court of Appeals overturned an order of Gov. Tony Evers that limited indoor capacity in restaurants. This April, a seat on that Wausau-based court is up for grabs and the conservative-aligned candidate has drawn more than $120,000 in donations as well as the institutional support of the state Republican apparatus.
That candidate, Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Greg Gill, says he isn’t for sale — but donations and endorsements from high profile conservatives show that the state’s Republican party is looking for influence in the state’s lower courts.
For more than a decade, the two major political parties have waged proxy battles over the ideological bent of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. That war is moving down to courts of appeals as Republicans see a new front for winning political fights in the court system.
“I probably would call it trickle down judicial economics in a sense,” says John Blakeman, a political scientist at the UW-Stevens Point. “They see the importance of a state Supreme court, but also the importance and their ability to perhaps influence intermediate courts of appeals and then lower state trial courts. I shouldn’t say just conservative donors, more liberal donors are going to pick up on this as well.”
In just six years, the cost of an election for a seat on Wisconsin’s court of appeals has increased by more than 700%.
In races like these that don’t receive much attention from the public, it doesn’t take very much money to run a campaign that sways enough voters in a low turnout election and the end result is a public that’s less trustful of the judicial branch’s independence.
“The idea these races are non partisan has disappeared at this point,” says David Canon, a political scientist at UW-Madison. “The problem with this of course is it undermines our confidence in the impartiality of the courts. The government likes to believe in that image of blind justice, that’s the image we’d like to have of the courts. With this kind of money flowing into these lower court races as well, it’s harder to sustain this image of impartial justice.”
Gill has received a $5,000 donation — the maximum allowed by state law — from Richard Uihlein, a Republican donor whose business is located in Wisconsin and has given more than $4 million to a group that played a major role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
John Menard, owner of the home improvement chain, who gave millions to groups supporting former Gov. Scott Walker’s fight against a recall, donated $1,000 to Gill’s campaign.
Gill has received endorsements from dozens of important Republican officials, including U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, state Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) and former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. He’s also been endorsed 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. Rep. Ron Kind and lost, and dozens of the region’s Republican district attorneys and sheriffs have endorsed him.
Gill says he’s proud of the endorsements he’s received, touting those from appellate and trial judges from across the state. He also says the six figure fundraising is a reflection of the simple fact that campaigning is expensive — not a sign of how he’ll decide issues in front of him.
“I want the parties to know that they’re going to get A. fair treatment, and B. simply because I’ve been blessed with a campaign contribution does not equate to favoritism in the court,” Gill said at a virtual candidate forum on Feb. 18. “I don’t think there’s any room for that.”
“I’ve never made any promises, other than to serve admirably and with character,” he continued. “I’ve never made any promises that a contribution is going to result in any sort of a favorable outcome.”
Gill’s opponent, Wausau criminal defense attorney Rick Cveykus, is way behind in the battle for campaign contributions.
In the last filing period, Jan. 1 through Feb. 1, Gill brought in $43,000 in donations while Cveykus received just $1,305. Cveykus has taken out several personal loans, totaling $40,000, just to keep up.
In the virtual candidate forum, Cveykus said that this much money flowing into an appeals court race can only mean the donors are looking for a friendly judge on the bench.
“When people are giving you that much money, they might expect something,” he said. “When you start seeing six figure contributions going into a campaign, there’s a reason for that.”
“So my concern with that … is that you’ve gotten money from John Menard, you’ve gotten money from the owners of Uline,” Cveykus continued. “They expect something back. You’re talking about people that have a far right agenda in the state of Wisconsin … when they are investing that money in a campaign, they want to know where their money is going and I think so do the people here.”
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Gill’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
For the few progressives paying attention to this race, the imbalance of institutional support is cause for concern, though members of the legal community in the area say they don’t see Gill has the hardliner his donations and endorsements would make him out to be.
“If people think they’re getting partisanship with Judge Gill, I think that might be misplaced,” says Christine Bremer Muggli, a Wausau attorney and Democratic activist. “I don’t think I’d be afraid of getting a fair venue with him. I think it’s sad the Republican party is putting that kind of money into an appellate race thinking they might have a venue that’s friendly to them.”
But other Wisconsin progressives see the Republican party going unchallenged as it asserts its influence on another part of state government.
“Republicans have lost two of the last three Supreme Court races,” says Sachin Chheda, a Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist who oversaw the campaigns of Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky. “There’s some sense that progressives, who have a different view of how the judiciary should operate, have been ascendant.”
“You also have Gov. Evers making lots of appointments,” he continues. “So you’re seeing the Republicans saying ‘Hey, there will be more supreme court races,’ and they don’t want the next level of the judiciary to be dominated by Evers appointees and progressives. Their donors and political network are paying attention and engaging in these next-level races. The Democrats, or progressives, simply aren’t paying attention in the same way.”
The Republican and Democratic Parties of Wisconsin did not respond to requests for comment.
The 3rd District Court of Appeals covers northern Wisconsin and is the largest of the state’s four appellate districts — covering 35 of the state’s 72 counties. Three judges, Deputy Chief Lisa Stark, Thomas Hruz and Mark Seidl, currently sit on the court.
In October, when the court ruled 2-1 to overturn Evers’ order restricting restaurant capacity, Hruz and Seidl formed the majority with Stark dissenting. Both Stark and Hruz were appointed by Walker and later won re-election.
Bremer Muggli says that if Republicans are trying to solidify a friendly 3-0 court they can use to bring controversial cases, they might not find what they’re looking for.
“Forum shopping is real and it does happen,” Bremer Muggli, who has endorsed Cveykus, says. “But with Judge Stark as the chief judge, she’s a strong and independent judge. I think she’ll prevent partisanship coming in.”
The race between Gill and Cveykus is to fill the seat currently held by Seidl, who was elected in 2015 and is not seeking another term. In that race, Seidl won 57% of the vote after raising just $11,576.82. His opponent, Kristina Bourget, raised slightly more than $10,000.
Conservative Divide in District Two
The 3rd District isn’t the only contested appellate court election this spring. The 2nd District, based in Waukesha and covering the counties surrounding Milwaukee, is also contested — though the differences aren’t drawn quite as neatly alongside partisan lines.
That race pits incumbent Judge Jeff Davis against Judge Shelley Grogan, a judicial assistant for 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 more openly ideological of the two candidates — has been endorsed by former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Bradley and former Justice Daniel Kelly.
While the partisan lines in the district two race aren’t the same, the money is. Grogan has raised more than $90,000 — including maximum donations of $5,000 from both Uihlein and his wife, Elizabeth. Davis meanwhile, has raised $27,000 but supplemented that with $105,000 in personal loans.
Now that the partisan dam has been broken, the temperature of Wisconsin’s judicial races is unlikely to come down.
“Those days are gone, if you look at how our supreme court race has been run, it’s impossible to be neutral,” Bremer Muggli says. “The courts have become a governing branch … It’s very important that people on the court can look at the law and do what they think is the right thing.”
The spring election to determine who will serve on the state’s courts of appeal, as well as a number of trial courts, is set for April 6.
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