All seven justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court have signed a letter calling for public financing of judicial elections. I can sympathize. The need to raise money is one of the worst things about running for office and has been made worse - over the past thirty years - by campaign finance regulation. It used to be that a promising politician like Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern would capture the interest of someone like Herb Kohl or Jon Corzine to fund their campaigns.
But contribution limits forced candidates to fill their campaign bucket with a teaspoon, such that a candidate's pre-campaign notoriety and ability to dial for dollars control everything. Because you can't constitutionally prohibit people from spending their own money, now Kohl and Corzine (or Forbes), rather than support someone who actually has the skill set to be an effective public official, run themselves. Nothing against the rich guys, but you tell me which system was better.
One problem with public financing is that it is likely to be at a low level (particularly if it is voluntary), thus making challenges to incumbency even more difficult than they are now. Another is determining who qualifies. Set the threshold too low and it gets too expensive. Set it too high and the purpose is compromised, if not defeated.
But the largest problem is that you can't shut up people when their interests are at stake. Who is on the Wisconsin Supreme Court or in the Senate - matters a great deal. Focusing on judicial elections, to the extent that the Court feels itself relatively less constrained in the interpretation of constitutional and statutory language and, therefore, freer to do "what is right," it starts to look more like a political institution and people will treat it accordingly.
So if you prohibit people from giving to candidates, their dollars will move to independent expenditures. After the Supreme Court's ruling in Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, it is unlikely that any law can constitutionally prohibit issue ads during an election.
I don't think that this is all the terrible. There seems to be plenty of money on both sides of the aisle. It's messy and imperfect but seems preferable to the suppression of speech.
But I want to be provocative. One of the dangers of democracy is that an unrestrained majoritarianism succumbs to demagoguery and a majority votes to pick the pockets of the minority. We have generally removed the constitutional constraints on this.
The founders, particularly Madison, felt that balancing factions against one another helped to secure liberty. Is there a sense in which allowing those with resources or an intense interest in the outcome to use those resources to get their message out serves as a hedge against the triumph of class envy and the associated destruction of the golden goose that is the free market?
Knock yourselves out.