Part 2 of a New Guide to the Right-Wing Groups Targeting Wisconsin’s Supreme Court
By Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl
An arm of WMC that is immersed in dark money is part of the right-wing echo chamber in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election. The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Issues Mobilization Council (WMC IMC) has spent at least a quarter million on ads attacking Judge Janet Protasiewicz,1 who graduated from Marquette University Law School in 1988 and has been a Milwaukee circuit court judge since 2014. Its ads so far are identical to Eric O’Keefe’s Wisconsin Alliance for Reform (WAR).
Zoom in: WMC’s political/“issue” arms (which we call “WMC/hydra”) have long coordinated with right-wing conduits for secretive funders, despite being more widely known as the state’s affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a trade association that lobbies and that corporations pay dues to join.
- WMC/hydra has deployed cash from DC-area dark money groups, like the Judicial Crisis Network/the Concord Fund (JCN), which is core to Leonard Leo’s federal and state court capture agenda. Here is one example of the whack-a-mole nature of trying to trace the money between right-wing groups funding attack ads here: JCN gave O’Keefe’s Wisconsin Club for Growth (WiCFG) $500K between 2012 and 2013; in 2013, WiCFG gave $500K to WMC/hydra; and WMC/hydra spent $500K in 2013 backing Justice Pat Roggensack’s re-election.2 Then, in 2015 WMC/hydra spent six-figures to push a measure that effectively removed Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s title, resulting in the right-wing Roggensack becoming the Court’s Chief Justice.3 Notably, JCN has also fueled attack ads in court elections in Wisconsin through O’Keefe’s WAR and the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC).
- WMC/hydra also received funding from the “Wellspring Committee,” whose secret donor(s) funded Leo’s right-wing capture of the U.S. Supreme Court. Wellspring gave $200K to WMC/hydra’s $1.7 million effort4 to help Michael Gableman defeat Louis Butler, the state’s first Black justice. Afterward, the Court’s majority rejected a petition for stricter recusal rules based on the appearance of bias in cases involving groups that helped a justice win power. Instead, they adopted a WMC/hydra-written rule5 that campaign spending, no matter how large, by a party did not itself require recusal. Then, in 2015, Justices Gableman and David Prosser refused prosecutors’ request to recuse from the bipartisan criminal probe of other groups tied to O’Keefe’s allies whose ads helped them win election, killing the John Doe II probe in a 4-2 vote.
- WMC/hydra’s ties to O’Keefe run deep. For example, during 2012 (when there was no judicial race but a presidential race and other elections), O’Keefe’s WiCFG gave WMC/hydra $2,984,000.6 That year, JCN also gave $281K to the RSLC-tied State Government Leadership Foundation, which then gave $120,000 to WMC/hydra and $25,000 to WiCFG. Fast forward to now, where WMC/hydra’s attack ads and O’Keefe’s WAR attack ads are echoing each other.
The Bottom Line: WMC/hydra’s ties to dark money operations may sound like alphabet soup–that’s one of the purposes of such front groups–but the reality is that WMC has spent more than $27 million from secretive sources on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court races and other matters since 2010 to try to stack the Court, change the laws, and secure rulings that aid its right-wing political agenda.7
Curated Resources about WMC and Its Targeting of the Wisconsin Supreme Court
- Brendan Fischer, “Wisconsin Supreme Court Ethics Issues May Lead D.A. to Re-Open Collective Bargaining Suit,” PRWatch/Center for Media and Democracy (December 23, 2011). Link
- Brendan Fischer, “Justices in Walker Criminal Probe Face Conflicts of Interest,” PRWatch/Center for Media and Democracy (October 6, 2014). Link
- Mary Bottari, “WMC Spends $600,000 to Demote Chief Justice as Criminal Probe of Walker Campaign Looms, PRWatch.org/Center for Media and Democracy (March 31, 2015). Link
- John T. Chisholm v. The Honorable Gregory Peterson, and Eighth Unnamed Movants, Petition for a Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin (April 2015). Link
- Lisa Graves, “Chambers of Commerce Exposed by CMD, PRWatch/Center for Media and Democracy (April 4, 2016). Link
- Lisa Graves, “CMD Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Prosecutors’ Appeal in John Doe II Corruption Case,” PRWatch/Center for Media and Democracy (June 23, 2016). Link
- John T. Chisholm v. The Honorable Gregory Peterson, and Eighth Unnamed Movants, Brief of the Center for Media and Democracy, the Brennan Center for Justice, and Common Cause as Amici Curiae in support of petitioner (July 2016). Link
- Jay Heck, “Out-of-control campaign spending and weak recusal rules undermine Wisconsin’s courts,” Wisconsin Examiner (June 1, 2021). Link
- Common Cause, “Fair Courts,” Common Cause. Link
Key Financial Documents
- Judicial Crisis Network 2012 form 990. Link
- Judicial Education Project 2012 form 990. Link
- Judicial Education Project 2013 form 990. Link
- Judicial Education Project 2014 form 990. Link
- State Government Leadership Foundation 2012 form 990. Link
- Wellspring Committee 2008 form 990. Link
- Wisconsin Club for Growth 2012 form 990. Link
- Wisconsin Club for Growth 2013 form 990. Link
- Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, WMC Tally (June 10, 2021). Link
About this series. Together, Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl have been covering outside spending in state supreme court races since 2019, including in Wisconsin. Graves has lived in Wisconsin for more than a decade and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse before attending Cornell Law School. Vorpahl is a native Wisconsinite who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. True North Research is a national watchdog group, and Graves is the President of the Board of the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, which she previously led for eight years, writing and editing numerous Wisconsin and national stories.
Graves received the Milwaukee Press Club’s “Excellence in Journalism” Award for her coverage of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in 2011. Her investigations of the American Legislative Exchange Council (“ALECexposed”) have won an “Izzy”/I.F. Stone Award and the Association for Education in Journalism’s “Professional Freedom and Responsibility” Award, whose other recipients include Bill Moyers and Molly Ivins–in addition to other honors.
Graves previously served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy in the U.S. Department of Justice where she worked on judicial nominations, federal and state court relations, and other policies; as the Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee where she handled judicial nominations; as the Deputy Chief of the Article III Judges Division of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, where she advised judges and judicial programs on anti-corruption measures; and other posts. She has testified before Congress about the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Postal Service, FOIA reform, and national security matters.
She is one of the nation’s foremost experts on the infrastructure of right-wing groups, both nationally and in the states, and how their billionaire funders and influence are regressing American public policies and institutions.
Download the report here.
For additional information about this series, please contact Evan Vorpahl via firstname.lastname@example.org.