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Abrahamson is top recipient; justices remain involved in 98 percent of cases involving attorney donors
In January 2009, Milwaukee area attorney Mark Thomsen donated $5,000 to a Wisconsin official’s political campaign. Thomsen soon sent an additional $500 just eight days before the official cast a key vote on an insurance issue that greatly affected Thomsen and his clients.
The public official’s vote was not in the state Assembly, or the state Senate. It was in the state’s highest court.
When the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision came down in Thomsen’s favor, the majority included the recipient of Thomsen’s money: Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.
Abrahamson, in fact, is the top recipient of support from attorneys whose cases reach the Supreme Court, pulling in $188,650 over the past 11 years, a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism analysis shows.
Those attorneys contributed a total of $210,750 to current justices, either before or after their cases were heard, from July 2002 through June 2013. Fifty-six percent of these contributions came in before the court’s rulings.
And as happened after Thomsen’s donations, the analysis found, justices tend to rule in favor of clients whose attorneys contribute to the justices’ election campaigns.
In instances where a contribution came in before a case was decided, justices favored those attorneys’ clients 59 percent of the time.
The Center’s analysis showed that the more money Abrahamson received from donor attorneys, the more likely she was to vote in favor of their position. Fifty-eight percent of her rulings sided with contributors overall, while the figure was 71 percent for cases in which a lawyer donated $1,500 or more to her campaign.
Joe Heim, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said that the Center’s findings suggest a possible problem because “the taint of — or at least the appearance of — the influence of campaign contributions can damage the image of the courts as a neutral and unbiased branch of government.”
Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, a national group that supports public financing of judicial elections, said that “the prevalence of lawyer contributions definitely raises questions.”
“I think the vast majority of judges are not going to be influenced by contributions, but the public is still going to think that there could be influence,” Skaggs added.
Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group, echoed that view.
“Any research that shows a correlation between donations and a justice’s decision on a case is only going to create greater concern among members of the public,” McCabe said. “I don’t know what could possibly be worse for the Supreme Court than the impression that justice has been bought.”
McCabe endorsed the Center’s approach of tallying contributions made before and after a case was heard. “A lot of donors give to say ’please,’ and a lot give to say ’thank you,’ ” he said. “Both are very corrosive.”
Justices have the option of recusing themselves from cases involving donor attorneys but have rarely stepped aside, remaining involved in nearly 98 percent of such cases, the Center found.
Abrahamson did not respond to interview requests. But when asked specifically about her status as the court’s leading recipient of donations from attorneys with cases before the court, and the larger issue of recusal, Abrahamson wrote in an email: “(A) judge makes a recusal decision in each case taking into consideration all the particular circumstances involved.”
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, shown here at a March 13, 2013, oral argument, took in the vast majority of donations from attorneys whose cases came before the Wisconsin Supreme Court over the past 11 years. Jake Harper/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
‘There is no correlation’
The issue of campaign donations to state Supreme Court candidates has sparked bitter division on the court. The court’s conservative majority has rejected efforts to tighten the rules for when justices must withdraw from a case.
Abrahamson, who is usually associated with the court’s liberal bloc, has proposed that an outside body determine when justices should withdraw from a case involving a conflict of interest.
In Thomsen’s insurance case, he represented clients, including Heritage Farms Inc., that lost 572 acres of land to a fire caused by an out-of-control burn pile on a Marquette County campground. The high court held in 2009 that Thomsen’s clients were eligible for attorney fees and double damages.
When the issue came before the high court a second time, Abrahamson in 2012 again sided with the majority in favor of Thomsen’s clients.
Thomsen did not respond to requests for comment.