"Outside money polluting electoral system?" Are special interest groups hijacking state Supreme Court?

MADISON (WITI) -- It was once said that in the hallowed halls of justice, the only place to find justice is in the halls -- or maybe the back rooms where lobbyists and donors secretly pull the strings. Over the past decade, big money donors and shadowy political organizations have expanded their influence over the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The question is, will they hijack the high court?

The "selling" of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is the central issue of the 2015 election.

"The justices are up for sale," Matt Rothschild with Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said.

"Everybody knows which judge has a conservative philosophy or a progressive philosophy," Joe Murray with the Wisconsin Realtors Association said.

"That's what's really ruined the court," UW-Milwaukee Professor Mordecai Lee said.

The 2015 race for Wisconsin Supreme Court justice pits incumbent Ann Walsh Bradley against Rock County Judge James Daley.

"Justices should not be legislators," Daley said.

"I'm committed to having a non-partisan judiciary," Bradley said.

Both candidates sat down with FOX6's Mike Lowe for one-on-one interviews.

"Oversight is important. Judges don't have a lot of oversight when we make decisions," Daley said.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "I once read that a good description of a judge is a law student who gets to grade his own papers."

"Perfect.  H.L. Menken.  I've used that quote myself. He said that many years ago, and it's true.  They don't have a whole lot of oversight," Daley said.

Daley is up front and unapologetic about his politics.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "Do you have a more conservative view of the law?"

"Absolutely," Daley said.

"I haven't seen anything quite as brazen.  He's been coming out making statements about how conservative he's going to be, and how he's going to be in line with what the conservatives have been doing," Matt Rothschild with Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said.

Bradley bristles at the thought of judges cloaking themselves in political labels.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "You're seen as the liberal in this race.  Do you agree with that label?"

"When people file lawsuits, when they come to the courts, we don't say, 'just a minute -- are you conservative or are you liberal?'  There is no place in our court system for partisan politics," Bradley said.

But partisan politics are shaping this race. A FOX6 examination of Daley's campaign finance records shows he has direct financial help from the GOP.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "You have taken thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions -- staffing, fundraising help -- from the Wisconsin Republican Party."

"I don't know what that means. I don't know.  I am paying for my own campaign.  My camapign, whatever we raise pays for my campaign," Daley said.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "So you are not the Republican Party candidate?"

"I don't know who their candidate is," Daley said.

Bradley says she would not take money directly from the Democratic Party. However, a FOX6 examination of her campaign finance records shows she is willing to raise money from Democratic activists, including a candidate for Democratic Party Chair Mary Lang Sollinger.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "You took money from someone who is running to be the head of the Democratic Party.  How do you explain that?"

"Listen, I have support from people from both sides of the aisle, from all parts of the state," Bradley said.

The state is divided like never before, and many see the 2011 physical altercation between Bradley and conservative Justice David Prosser as symbolic of the division.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "It's hard to discuss Justice Bradley's record without bringing up the infamous incident with Justice Prosser, surrounding the Act 10 strife.  What is your view of what happened there?"

"I, like everybody else, don't know what happened in the chambers of the Supreme Court.  I've just read the papers -- same as you have.  Every time I've read an article concerning dysfunction on the state Supreme Court,  Justice Bradley's been at the center of it," Daley said.

Bradley wouldn't go into detail about the alleged attack.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "That incident, though, many people viewed as coming from this partisan rancor. It was essentially a dispute over how to adjudicate Act 10.  It gave rise to concerns about whether or not the court could impartially decide these highly charged political issues, without resorting to violence.  I mean, that's the point of a court, to resolve our disputes peacefully.  How can voters look at a person who was involved in that and say 'this is a person who should be on the court?'"

"Look, that was, and we've had some challenging times on the court.  All seven of us know this.  All seven of us know the people of this state want and expect a court they can be proud of," Bradley said.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "So when there are accusations leveled against the court as a whole that it is dysfunctional, you say what?"

"I say all seven of us know we have to do better," Bradley said.

The seven justices are no longer the only forces dictating the direction of Wisconsin's high court. In perhaps the court's biggest decision on ethics in decades, in 2009, the justices adopted new rules for recusal. In other words, the situations when they need to step aside for a conflict of interest.

But through an open records request, FOX6 News found two special interest groups -- Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association wrote the new recusal role for the justices.

"Essentially we're getting to a system of legalized bribery," Matt Rothschild with Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said.

The new rule reads: "A judge shall not be required to recuse himself or herself" even if their donors are "involved in the proceeding."

"These conservative business groups are hijacking our Supreme Court," Rothschild said.

Rothschild is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

"It's a recipe for corruption. They've got the system wired.  They're rigging the system," Rothschild said.

A FOX6 investigation shows outside groups with specific interests are paying to get justices elected. FOX6 News obtained a memo from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce shows the group spent more than $8 million to elect the four conservative justices who voted to change the recusal rule.

"That's why they're spending their money. They know if they make the investment, there's a return on the investment.  The return on investment is that the court rules in their favor by-and-large, so they make more money. That's the game," Rothschild said.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce declined an interview with FOX6 News.

The political director of the other group behind the rule -- the Wisconsin Realtors Association says the group is simply exercising its First Amendment rights -- despite what critics say.

"I think that they ought to be for something other than trying to shut down political speech,"  Joe Murray with the Wisconsin Realtors Association said.

FOX6 News asked Murray about how the new judicial conduct rule came to be written by special interest groups.

"Our attorneys wrote that rule for us, and we submitted it to the court, and you can see that over time, somebody who doesn't agree with you who wants to win their case, they'll automatically be asking judges to recuse themselves. If all the Supreme Court justices were recusing themselves every time somebody asked them to, we wouldn't have functioning state Supreme Court," Murray said.

FOX6's Mike Lowe: "The Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct is widely derided as being one of the weakest in the nation.  Right now, judges do not have to recuse themselves in cases in which there is independent spending related to their campaigns. Should they have to recuse themselves if someone involved  in case they're hearing has given them money?"

"This is what -- a couple of things to that.  Number one, I wrote a dissent when we adopted those campaign rules because I thought we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard. That's exactly what I'm doing in this campaign.  The judicial ethics rules allow parties before the court to be solicited by campaigns. I'm against that," Bradley said.

Daley, however, sides with the conservative majority.

"It's not going to affect me, and it's clear under the law that a lawful donation is not a basis for recusal," Daley said.

"This outside money is polluting our electoral system," Rothschild said.

"No.  It's part of democracy.  You might not like democracy. You might not always like the way it looks or how much it costs," Murray said.

The ultimate cost may be to the court's credibility, says UW-Milwaukee Professor Mordecai Lee, who closely follows the court and studies the influence of money on the political process.

"The last thing we want are people who pre-judge the issue.  The reason we call them judges, and not 'pre-judges' is because they're supposed to have an open mind," Lee said.

That is the key point in all of this. We essentially already know how the justices will rule in a number of cases based on their own politics -- not based on the state constitution. The ideological makeup of the Supreme Court won't change with this election because conservatives now hold a 4-3 advantage, so either way, they'll still have a majority.

The statewide election is set for April 7th.