Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate won't recuse himself from cases involving major donors
Daniel Kelly voted in 2017 against a rule that would force judges off cases involving those who spent money to get them elected.
Right-wing special interest and dark money groups are spending millions of dollars to get conservative Justice Daniel Kelly elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in an effort that’s contributing to what has become the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history.
But the money spent by these groups and by wealthy individuals has some questioning what sort of influence that money buys. Both Kelly and Janet Protasiewicz, the liberal candidate for the Supreme Court seat, attended a meeting of the Wisconsin Counties Association in Madison, Wisconsin, last week, and both were asked if they would recuse themselves in cases involving campaign donors.
While Protasiewicz said that she would recuse herself from any case involving the state Democratic Party, which has contributed over $23,000 to her campaign so far, Kelly would not commit to recusing himself from cases involving the state Republican Party or special interest groups that have contributed to his campaign.
“The decision to recuse is an individual one,” Kelly said, according to a reporter with the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel who covered the event. “And I think one of the important things that we can be looking at, as we look forward to this election, is electing someone whose character you trust.”
Kelly’s comments track with his record on the role money plays in judicial elections. In 2017, when he had been appointed to fill a vacancy on the Wisconsin Supreme Court by former Gov. Scott Walker, he sided with his fellow conservative justices in a 5-2 decision to block a proposal that would have forced elected justices off of cases involving entities that had contributed to their campaigns. The majority ruling, according to the Journal Sentinel, argued that such a rule would infringe on the First Amendment rights of those who run ads for a candidate and engage in other campaign activities.
One of Kelly’s biggest individual campaign donors is Leonard Leo, the influential conservative legal activist and operative who, over the years, has shuffled billions of dollars through dark money political organizations to support conservative policies. In February, Leo contributed $20,000 — the maximum contribution an individual can give a candidate — to Kelly’s campaign. Though Leo might not be a household name, a number of outlets have reported on his influence in recent years, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, and NPR, which detailed his “outsized role” in helping to orchestrate the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last year in his role as a leader of the Federalist Society.
Another big financial backer of Kelly’s campaign is Fair Courts America, the conservative super PAC with deep ties to billionaire GOP mega donors Dick and Liz Uihlein. Fair Courts America has spent more than $3.3 million in independent expenditures supporting Kelly’s campaign, mostly in the form of TV, radio, and internet ads.
In an internal memo obtained by the American Independent Foundation in October 2022, Fair Courts America outlined how it plans to spend more than $20 million dollars on state supreme court races. Fair Courts America has described itself as “the only national conservative organization battling the Left in state court fights.”
The group recently put out a TV ad in Wisconsin that falsely claims that George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who has donated millions to left-wing causes, is the “mastermind behind America’s crime wave.”
In addition to the right-wing connections of Kelly’s biggest financial backers, Kelly himself has at times worked for the state GOP. He was hired to advise on election-related legal issues by the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Republican National Committee in the months before and after the 2020 presidential election. Notably, Kelly was involved in a scheme proposed by some of former President Donald Trump’s legal advisers to install fake electors who would falsely claim Trump had won the election in several states, including Wisconsin.
Despite Kelly’s connections to the Republican Party and his ties to far-right organizations, he still would not commit to recusing himself from cases where a conflict of interest may exist. “As far as recusal, I will look at that issue very closely in any case that would potentially implicate the Republican Party or anyone else who makes contributions,” he said at the event last week, according to Eau Claire ABC affiliate WQOW.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
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