Part 7 of a New Guide to the Right-Wing Groups Targeting the Wisconsin Supreme Court
By Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl
An arm of the Republican State Leadership Committee, dubbed the “Judicial Fairness Initiative” (RSLC-JFI), is spending at least nearly a quarter million dollars backing Dan Kelly, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University School of Law when it was not fully accredited. In prior Wisconsin Supreme Court races, RSLC-JFI’s cash bombs were timed for right before the election, after receiving similar sums from the Leonard Leo court-packing machine called the “Judicial Crisis Network” (JCN), also called the “Concord Fund,” a dark money conduit whose name invokes the location of the first battle of the American Revolutionary War. RSLC-JFI’s attack ads smear judges backed by Democrats.
Zoom in: RSLC-JFI is targeting Wisconsin’s highest court to cement right-wing control of swing state courts. This is also a do-over fight for this dark money group after Wisconsin voters rejected Kelly, a Scott Walker appointee, in 2020. That year, RSLC-JFI spent nearly $1 million to try to keep him on the Court after he repeatedly sided with the GOP-controlled legislature that RSLC had helped gain power.
- RSLC-JFI’s sole disclosed funder is RSLC, but we know that RSLC’s largest donor in recent years is the Leonard Leo-tied group known for helping him capture the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in last year’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. In 2020 and 2018, JCN/Concord Fund gave RSLC millions, outpacing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Charles Koch’s Koch Industries, and other huge corporations. There is no limit on how much it, as an IRS 527, can receive from such dark money shell groups, corporations, or billionaires.
- Leo, a right-wing lawyer seeking to impose his personal views against abortion rights, gay rights, and regulating corporations as binding law through the courts, now helms a billion dollar trust fund that uses conduits to influence who becomes a judge. He has also personally profited from his extreme agenda to take away freedoms.
- RSLC is notorious for its 2010 Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), which targeted state legislatures to secure GOP control, unleashing extreme legislation attacking unions and reproductive rights. REDMAP led to grossly gerrymandered voting maps that destroy fair representation in legislatures, including Wisconsin’s. RSLC-JFI bragged about its “significant impact on the redistricting process” after helping elect judges in 2022 (North Carolina and Ohio).
- In 2019, RSLC-JFI also bragged that its last-minute cash bomb of $1.3 million helped Walker-appointee Judge Brian Hagedorn come from behind Judge Lisa Neubauer to win by fewer than 6,000 votes. The Leo-tied JCN gave $1 million to RSLC just days before RSLC moved a similar amount to RSLC-JFI. It then began commissioning ads calling the anti-abortion activist a “rule of law” judge and disparaging the well-regarded Judge Neubauer as a “liberal.”
- RSLC flooded the state with ads to amp up partisan intensity by portraying Hagedorn as aligned with Trump and his right-wing U.S. Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaigh, whom Leo had hand-picked for Trump. RSLC spent more money in one week than either candidate spent individually during the entire election cycle. RSLC said its targeting helped flip Green Bay from R-3 to R+15 and Wausau from R-3 to R+14.
The Bottom Line: RSLC is spending big to aid Kelly’s effort to return to the Wisconsin Supreme Court as part of its political agenda to elect judges in order to protect extreme right-wing partisanship through GOP-drawn legislative maps that thwart fair representation and lock-in the MAGA Republican’s anti- freedom program to make it harder to vote, ban abortion access, and interfere with the public’s interest in fair elections and a fair economy which depend on curbing undue corporate and billionaire influence.
Curated Resources about RSLC’s Court-Capture Operations
- Dan Kaufman, “A High-Stakes Election in the Midwest’s ‘Democracy Desert'” The New Yorker (March 28, 2023). Link
- David Moore, “Leonard Leo’s ‘Dark Money’ Group Donates Millions to Back Republican State Campaigns,” Sludge (October 31, 2022). Link
- Heidi Przybyla, “Dark money and special deals: How Leonard Leo and his friends benefited from his judicial activism,” Politico (Mar. 1, 2023). Link
- Douglas Keith and Eric Velasco, “The Politics of Judicial Elections, 2019–20,” Brennan Center for Justice (January 25, 2022). Link
- David Daley, “’Gerrymandering On Steroids’: How Republicans Stacked The Nation’s Statehouses,” WBUR (July 19, 2016). Link
- Evan Vorpahl and Lisa Graves, “Rightwing Dark Money Bomb Coming for State Courts,” Common Dreams (November 1, 2022). Link
- Evan Vorpahl, Julia Peck, and Alyssa Bowen, “Right-Wing Dark Money Is Coming for Reproductive Rights in Your State,” Truthout (June 1, 2022). Link
- Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl, “Leonard Leo’s Court Capture Web Raised Nearly $600 Million Before Biden Won; Now It’s Spending Untold Millions from Secret Sources to Attack Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson,” True North Research (Mar. 22, 2022). Link
- Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl, “ACS on Dark Money: Who Is Capturing Our Courts (Wisconsin Edition)?” American Constitution Society (November 6, 2019). Link
- David Moore, “Wisconsin Groups Keep it Local Amid Record Ad Blitz in Supreme Court Race,” Sludge (March 16, 2023). Link
- David Moore, “Outside Groups Spend Big on Pennsylvania Supreme Court Race,” Sludge (November 1, 2021). Link
- Billy Corriher, “Triumphs and Setbacks in Efforts to Reshape State Supreme Courts,” Governing (November 15, 2022). Link
- Steve Reilly, “Leonard Leo is quietly remaking state high courts in his conservative image,” Grid (December 27, 2022). Link
- Wisconsin Blue Book, “Survey of Significant Wisconsin Court Decisions, 2019-20.” Link
Key Financial documents
- RSLC 2019 mid-year IRS filing. Link
- RSLC-JFI 2019 mid-year IRS filing. Link
- RSLC 2020 Q1 IRS filing. Link
- RSLC 2020 Q2 IRS filing. Link
- RSLC-JFI 2020 Q1 IRS filing. Link
- RSLC-JFI 2020 Q2 IRS filing. Link
- RSLC-JFI independent expenditure filing 3/14/23. Link
About this series. 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 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.
For additional information about this article, please contact Evan Vorpahl via firstname.lastname@example.org.