Tag Archives: wisconsin supreme court

Conservative court says DOJ doesn’t have to release Schimel videos

The Wisconsin Supreme Court this week rejected Democrats’ efforts to force the release of training videos featuring Republican Brad Schimel before he became attorney general, finding that he didn’t say anything inappropriate in them, as Democrats initially alleged, and that releasing them could hurt prosecutors and crime victims.

The recordings don’t reveal any misconduct and releasing them would reveal prosecutor strategies as well as re-traumatize victims in a high-profile sexual extortion case, the court’s conservative majority ruled in a 5-2 decision.

The state Democratic Party asked the state Department of Justice in 2014 to release videos of presentations on sexual predators that Schimel gave in 2009 and 2013, when he was the Waukesha County district attorney.

The 2009 video shows Schimel discussing prosecution strategies.

In the 2013 video, Schimel recounts a case in which a Waukesha County high school student posed as a woman online, obtained graphic pictures from male classmates and blackmailed them into sexual acts.

The Democrats’ demanded the videos during the height of Schimel’s attorney general campaign, alleging they showed him making ethnic and racial slurs, as well as sexist comments.

The DOJ refused to hand over the videos, arguing that they reveal prosecutorial strategies and could re-traumatize the blackmail victims.

That stance prompted Democrats to sue.

A Madison judge who viewed the videos found that Schimel didn’t make any inappropriate remarks and that no victims were identified by name.

Both the judge and a state appeals court ruled the videos should be released.

The DOJ allowed the Democrats’ attorney to view the videos, after which he dropped the misconduct claims, according to court documents.

The state Supreme Court sided with DOJ, ruling the videos don’t show any official misconduct and the lawsuit suggests a partisan purpose behind the request.

Writing for the majority, Justice Rebecca Bradley likened the 2009 video to prosecutors’ case files, which are exempt from Wisconsin’s open records law.

The video clearly contains discussions of tactics and could be widely disseminated online, helping criminals avoid detection, the court found.

Bradley acknowledged that Schimel doesn’t name any victims in the 2013 video, but she wrote that someone could figure out who they are from the context. That could re-traumatize them in violation of a state constitutional amendment that requires the state to treat crime victims with dignity, she wrote.

“The denial of public access occurs only in exceptional cases. This case presents one of those exceptional situations,” Bradley wrote. “The two videos requested here do not contain any evidence of official misconduct. Our review independently demonstrates that the reasons proffered (for withholding the videos) are sufficient and supported by the facts in this case.”

The court’s two liberal-leaning justices, Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, dissented.

Abrahamson wrote that the court should have ordered the videos released with sensitive information redacted.

She chastised the majority for suggesting that the request was politically motivated, noting that the open records law doesn’t require requestors to explain their motivation. She added the ruling offers no limits on when protecting victims trumps disclosure.

“What has the majority achieved with its opinion grounded in speculative, abstract, and unsubstantiated fears? The answer for me is: A dimming of the light on public oversight of government, especially in matters pertaining to criminal justice.”

A Democratic Party spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Supreme Court declines to reopen Walker campaign case

The U.S. Supreme Court will not take up an appeal on the John Doe 2 case, permanently ending a probe into Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign against a recall.

The high court declined to reopen the John Doe 2 investigation, leaving in place the state supreme court’s decision that halted the John Doe probe into whether the Republican governor illegally coordinated with outside interest groups, specifically the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth. The state court’s decision was considered highly partisan.

In the probe, prosecutors were looking into whether Walker’s campaign coordinated with conservative groups on campaign ads in 2012. The governor was fighting off a recall effort after he signed his bill stripping public unions of collective bargaining rights.

The Wisconsin Justice Initiative on Oct. 3 said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision highlights a need to reform state judicial campaign laws.

“This unfortunate decision doesn’t erase the perception that money corrupted the deliberative process of the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” WJI executive director Gretchen Schuldt said. “That court’s majority took too much in campaign funds from too many players with interests in the case. The money raises suspicions that will never go away.”

The state should bar judges from participating in cases that include or might affect campaign donors, according to WJI. Also, judges should be blocked from participating in cases involving groups or individuals who have provided endorsements in the judges’ races.

“The integrity of the state supreme court has rightly been called into question,” Schuldt said. “The court itself does not want to restore it and the U.S. Supreme Court does not want to restore it. It is up to Wisconsin voters to insist that their legislators enact laws that will ensure the state supreme court is the pride of Wisconsin, not the huge embarrassment it is now.”

Iowa County District Attorney Larry Nelson, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm issue a joint statement after learning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision: “We are disappointed by today’s Supreme Court order denying our Petition for Certiorari. The state supreme court decision, left intact by today’s order, prohibits Wisconsin citizens from enacting laws requiring the full disclosure of disguised contributions to a candidate, i.e., monies expended by third parties at the direction of a candidate for the benefit of that candidate’s election. We are proud to have taken this fight as far as the law would allow and we look forward to the day when Wisconsin adopts a more enlightened view of the need for transparency in campaign finance.”

Wisconsin Club for Growth president Eric O’Keefe, according to Wisconsin Public Radio, said, “From its inception, this proceeding was a politically motivated attack and a criminal investigation in search of a theory.”

The high court announced the decision without explanation on Oct. 3, the court’s first day of the fall term. The order said, “The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.”

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.


Republican Party helps pay Justice Prosser’s campaign debt

The Wisconsin Republican Party paid legal bills and costs stemming from a vote recount for retiring Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, a longtime Republican official who promised to support Gov. Scott Walker’s policy agenda if re-elected to the bench. The partisan donation for the judge was disclosed in Prosser’s latest campaign finance report.

The party paid $25,000 on April 7 to Dan Morse, a Republican consultant and fundraiser for Walker, for work he’d done for the Prosser Defense Fund. Prosser still has $46,000 in legal bills related to his 2011 recount to pay, according to his committee’s report.

The in-kind contribution from the state GOP came about three weeks before Prosser announced he would retire at the end of this month — five years before the end of his term. Prosser’s early retirement gives Walker the opportunity to appoint a replacement. Walker is currently considering three finalists for the job.

Prosser was appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1998 by former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson and later won two 10-year terms in statewide elections in 2001 and 2011.

Prosser faced no opposition in the 2001 race, and he was expected to have an easy reelection in 2011 until GOP Walker introduced his controversial plan in early 2011 to severely restrict public employee collective bargaining rights.  The plan sparked massive Capitol protests by hundreds of thousands of state workers. It drew national attention and made an otherwise quiet re-election bid a referendum on Walker’s actions, because Prosser had been a longtime Republican legislator and Assembly Speaker.

The close election that followed spurred a recount and more than $230,000 in legal bills.

In 2012, Prosser changed his campaign fundraising committee to a defense fund in order to pay legal bills after the state Judicial Commission accused him of ethics code violations after he put his hands on the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. The case against Prosser did not go forward because some justices who witnessed the event recused themselves from the case.

In addition to the Prosser Defense Fund, a second committee created to pay for Prosser’s recount expenses, the Prosser Victory Recount Fund, has helped whittle Prosser’s outstanding bills to the current $46,000 as of June 30.

Even though the races for the seven-member high court are technically nonpartisan, conservative candidates are frequently backed by GOP contributors and outside electioneering groups, and liberal candidates get support from traditional Democratic campaign contributors and outside groups.

In addition to Prosser, the state Republican Party has also supported some of the Supreme Court’s four other conservative justices. Most recently, the party made about $42,200 in in-kind contributions to help elect Justice Rebecca Bradley last April. In 2013, the state party made about $35,900 in contributions to help reelect Patience Roggensack, who later became the court’s chief justice.

Watchdog group asks SCOTUS to overturn John Doe 2 ruling

On June 29, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), the Brennan Center for Justice and Common Cause filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court urging the justices to overturn the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that shut down John Doe 2.

John Doe 2 was a criminal investigation into potentially illegal campaign coordination between Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and groups that spent millions to help him survive the 2011–2012 recall elections.

The brief argues in part that the Constitution’s guarantee of a fair and independent tribunal was violated in the case due to the extraordinary conflicts of interest of two justices.

Justices David Prosser and Michael Gableman denied a motion from the special prosecutor to step aside because they’d received millions of dollars in support from the defendants in the case. According to the brief, they then proceeded to: help “cancel oral argument, issue sweeping secrecy orders, halt the investigation, fire the special prosecutor, order the evidence returned and copies destroyed, and dramatically curtail Wisconsin’s campaign finance law, rendering the longstanding limits and other restrictions the state places on contributions to candidates virtually meaningless.”

According to the brief, inappropriate actions were taken by the state’s high court to impede the prosecutors’ appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Specifically, the brief argues that:

  • Special prosecutor Fran Schmitz filed a Motion for Recusal asking justices Prosser and Gableman to step aside and raising concerns about two other justices. Those two justice and two others have received a combined $10 million since 2007 from the defendants in the case.
  • The special prosecutor may have unearthed documents suggesting that justices Prosser and Gableman or their campaigns benefited from the same kind of coordinated activities by the subjects of the investigation as Walker did. They may have had direct campaign-related interactions with the groups under investigation. Still, the two justices refused to recuse themselves from the case.
  • The activities of the groups under investigation in John Doe 2 aided the election of Prosser and Gableman to an even greater degree than in a case on which the Supreme Court has already ruled. In Caperton v. Massey, a West Virginia justice helped reverse a multi-million dollar verdict against a coal baron whose spending got him elected. The ruling in that case, which was issued the same day as the Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened due to the potential corruption.
  • The expenditures for Prosser and Gableman were made during the same time period and involved the same players as the actions under investigation in the John Doe 2 case. The defendants and their offshoots spent a combined total of $3.2 million to support Gableman’s election, nearly eight times the $411,000 spent by Gableman’s campaign itself.
  • Shortly after the recall elections, one of the defendants, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, issued a press release boasting of the $6.75 million it had spent on the previous three Supreme Court elections.

CMD’s brief notes: “Not only were the justices put in a position of making rulings that could cost their biggest campaign supporters millions in civil fines, but upholding the district attorneys’ theory of prosecution could have sent those supporters to jail. … As in Caperton, the amount spent by the movants and the organizations they controlled ‘eclipsed’ the amount spent by other supporters of Prosser and Gableman, as well as the amount spent by their own campaign committees.”

Close connections

As noted in Schmitz’s motion to recuse,“Two of the movants had ‘direct involvement’ with the re-election campaign of one justice; the treasurer of Walker’s campaign committee was also associated with the campaign committee of one justice; and one justice’s campaign had a ‘close connection’ with more than one movant.”

Schmitz is a former anti-terrorism prosecutor for ex-President George W. Bush’s Department of Justice.

The motion also noted “there is a potential overlap between the activities” of Prosser’s campaign “during the … election (that’s) within the scope of the investigation now before this court.” Prosser was re-elected in 2011, the same year of the Senate recall campaigns.

According to the brief, the criminal investigation “appears to have turned up at least one interaction with a justice’s campaign that ‘gave rise to a reportable contribution as a coordinated expenditure’ — the activity at the heart of the case and the court’s decision. As a result of that activity, ‘the Justices will be deciding issues that may well reflect back on their own campaign committees and any interaction that may have taken place between these committees’ and movants in the case.’”

CMD’s brief to the U.S. Supreme Court also urges the Court to overrule the Wisconsin Supreme Court for legal errors in its analysis of binding precedent allowing legislatures to limit coordination that would circumvent anti-corruption rules.

The brief states that the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling is wholly at odds with … longstanding decisions, as well as the holding of the U.S. Court of Appeals in this very same case. In O’Keefe v Chisholm (2014), the court ruled that “no opinion issued by the Supreme Court, or by any court of appeals, establishes (‘clearly’ or otherwise) that the First Amendment forbids regulation of coordination between campaign committees and issue-advocacy groups — let alone that the First Amendment forbids even an inquiry into that topic.”

In summation, the brief argues that the facts in John Doe 2, the grave legal errors made by the state court, the potential bias of some of the state justices, and the extraordinary intervention by that court provide compelling reasons for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and repudiate the decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Hearing expected later this year

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to consider the prosecutors’ petition later this year.

Last year, before the Wisconsin Supreme Court intervened in the state criminal prosecution of John Doe 2, federal prosecutors were investigating illegal campaign coordination similar to that alleged in the Wisconsin case under parallel federal laws. In Virginia, a “campaign finance manager and political consultant pleaded guilty … in the Eastern District of Virginia for coordinating $325,000 in federal election campaign contributions by a political action committee (PAC) to a Congressional campaign committee.”

As the U.S. Department of Justice stated in that case, “The significant prison sentence imposed on Tyler Harber should cause other political operatives to think twice about circumventing laws that promote transparency in federal elections,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “As the first conviction for illegal campaign coordination, this case stands as an important step forward in the criminal enforcement of federal campaign finance laws. Illegal campaign coordination can be difficult to detect, which is why we strongly encourage party or campaign insiders to come forward and blow the whistle.”

In the Wisconsin case, the targets of the investigation and related search warrants have denied any wrongdoing and claimed in court and through their allies in right-wing media that any coordination was protected by the First Amendment, in light of the Citizens United decision. That claim was embraced by the majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, despite justices’ manifest conflicts of interest in ruling on those claims.

The brief submitted by CMD, the Brennan Center, and Common Cause refutes that claim and highlights the overwhelming legal precedent supporting state and federal rules that limit coordination to help guard against the corruption of elected officials, including judges.

CMD, an investigative watchdog organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, has been reporting on John  Doe 2 since 2013 when the public first learned that a bipartisan group of state prosecutors had begun a criminal investigation into suspected illegal coordination spearheaded by Walker and his team to orchestrate ads from outside groups trying to aid Republican senators and Governor Walker himself as they faced potential recall elections stemming from Walker’s extremely controversial legislative agenda.

A prior criminal investigation of Scott Walker’s staff and associates, during the time he served as Milwaukee County Executive, resulted in 15 felony indictments for six people who have been sentenced for a variety of crimes including misconduct in office, including three Walker aides. Scott Walker was not charged in that case known as “John Doe I.”

Click here to read CMD’s full brief

Louis Weisberg edited this article from a release provided by CMD.

Half on Walker’s list for Wisconsin Supreme Court owe him

More than half of the applicants vying to replace retiring Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser already owe their jobs to Gov. Scott Walker — and now he could tap one of them for the state’s highest court.

Walker released the names of 10 of the 11 applicants May 20, including attorney Andrew Brown of River Falls; Madison attorney Claude Covelli; state appellate judges Mark Gundrum, Brian Hagedorn and Thomas Hruz; Jefferson County Circuit Judge Randy Koschnick, who is the father of Walker’s chief staff attorney; Marinette County Circuit Judge James Morrison; Wisconsin Public Service Commission Chairwoman Ellen Nowak; Milwaukee attorney Paul Scoptur; and Madison attorney Jim Troupis.

Walker’s office says an 11th applicant requested confidentiality. Wisconsin law says the state must withhold an applicant’s identity if the person requests confidentiality in writing, unless they become a final candidate.

Walker expects to appoint a replacement by the time Prosser retires on July 31. It will be the Republican governor’s second appointment to the state’s highest court. He appointed Justice Rebecca Bradley in October after Justice Patrick Crooks died in his chambers. Walker had appointed Bradley to judgeships twice previously, and she won re-election in April.

The governor similarly could tap a previous appointee this time around — he’s appointed at least six of the applicants to their positions.

Gundrum was elected to the state Assembly as a Republican in 1998, serving alongside Walker. Gundrum was elected to the Waukesha County Circuit Court in 2010, and Walker appointed him to the 2nd District Court of Appeals in Waukesha in 2011.

Hagedorn was Walker’s chief legal counsel until Walker appointed him to the 2nd District Court of Appeals in 2015. He previously worked in the state Department of Justice, as a Milwaukee attorney and as clerk to Justice Michael Gableman.

Walker appointed Hruz to the 3rd District Court of Appeals in 2014. Hruz, previously a Milwaukee attorney, also clerked for Prosser.

As for Morrison and Troupis, Walker appointed both to circuit judgeships — Morrison in 2012 and Troupis in 2015. Both were in private practice prior to their appointments. Troupis’ appointment was slated to continue until August, but he stepped down in May.

Walker also appointed Nowak to chair the Public Service Commission. She was legal counsel and chief of staff for the Assembly speaker and was deputy director of School Choice Wisconsin, an organization advocating charter and voucher schools.

Several of the applicants have bid for seats on the Wisconsin Supreme Court before.

Troupis and Covelli, a practicing attorney in Wisconsin for 43 years who specializes in insurance law, both lost out to Bradley for Crooks’ seat. Covelli then launched a brief campaign to compete against Bradley, ending it two months later.

Koschnick ran for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2009, unsuccessfully challenging Justice Shirley Abrahamson. He’s been Jefferson County Circuit Court judge since 1999 and was previously a public defender for the county. His daughter, Katie Ignatowski, is Walker’s chief legal counsel.

Ignatowski and Walker’s deputy legal counsel both have recused themselves from the appointment process, according to Walker’s office. Walker’s chief of staff, Rich Zipperer, and former deputy legal counsel Andrew Hitt will serve in their place.

Scoptur works as an injury attorney in Wauwatosa and as an adjunct law professor at Marquette University. Brown lives in River Falls but works at a firm in Minnesota, focusing on construction disputes.

Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.


Supreme Court deals Walker a blow on education case

A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court dealt Gov. Scott Walker a loss yesterday in upholding a ruling that preserves the independence of the state’s elected education secretary and denies the governor power of veto over the Department of Public Instruction.

The court’s conservative majority was split on whether to overturn its unanimous ruling from 20 years ago that solidified the state superintendent’s independence as head of the Department of Public Instruction. The high court’s 4–3 decision rejects arguments made by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel and upholds two lower court rulings.

The state constitution “requires the Legislature to keep the supervision of public instruction in the hands of officers of supervision of public instruction,” Justice Michael Gableman wrote for the majority. “To do otherwise would require a constitutional amendment.”

Superintendent Tony Evers has opposed overturning the law, saying the case was about preserving the office’s role as a nonpartisan constitutional officer in charge of implementing and overseeing education policy.

Evers hailed the ruling, calling it a “victory for public education and the future of our state.”

“More than anything else, this ruling provides much needed stability for our schools and the students they serve,” Evers said in a statement. “I hope we can now get back to focusing on what works best for our kids.”

Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson did not address the court’s ruling directly in his reaction. Instead, he said Walker would “continue to advocate for policies that prioritize student success.”

“Governor Walker is dedicated to challenging the status quo when it impedes the ability of parents, school boards, and students to get the best educational outcomes,” Evenson said.

Justice Department spokesman Johnny Koremenos said the agency is reviewing the decision and has no immediate comment.

The case focused on a 2011 law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Walker that gave the governor veto power over administrative rules pursued by the state superintendent. That raised questions about whether the law amounted to a violation of the 1996 state Supreme Court ruling that the office was independent of the governor’s control.

The state Justice Department argued that if the court’s 1996 ruling prohibits the Legislature from making a change to administrative rules, then the decision should be overturned. The department’s attorney argued that if the state superintendent is unhappy with the governor’s decision relative to rules, he can always go back to the Legislature and try to get it reversed.

The law is unconstitutional because it does not allow DPI and the secretary “to proceed with their duties of supervision without the Governor’s, and in some circumstances the Secretary of Administration’s approval,” Gableman wrote.

The 2011 law required all state agencies to get approval from the governor before drafting new administrative rules — the legal language that enacts agency policies and laws passed by the Legislature. Under previous law, the rules were written by state agencies and reviewed by the Legislature, but not the governor, before taking effect.

Parents and members of the teachers’ union, with backing from organizations representing school administrators and school boards, filed a lawsuit in 2011 challenging the portion of the law that gives the governor the ability to block rules at DPI. They argued that the law gives the governor more power than the independently elected state superintendent, contrary to the court’s 1996 ruling.

The 1996 ruling arose from a case challenging then-Gov. Tommy Thompson’s attempt to transfer powers from DPI into a new Department of Education under the control of the governor. At the time, the court unanimously ruled that the state superintendent is in charge of education policy in Wisconsin and that the governor and Legislature can’t give “equal or superior authority” to anyone else.

Those supporting the governor’s position and opposing Evers include School Choice Wisconsin, a group that advocates for taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools, and the state chamber of commerce.

Gableman was joined in the majority ruling by Justices David Prosser, Anne Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson. Those dissenting were Chief Justice Pat Roggensack and justices Annette Ziegler and Rebecca Bradley.

The dissenting justices argued that those challenging the law had not proven that it was unconstitutional.

Prosser to retire from Wisconsin Supreme Court

Right-wing Justice David T. Prosser Jr. has announced he will retire from the Wisconsin Supreme Court on July 31.

Justice David T. Prosser Jr.
Justice David T. Prosser Jr.

In a letter to Gov. Scott Walker, Prosser said, “It has been a tremendous honor to serve the people of Wisconsin in various capacities for more than 40 years. During this time, I have had the exceptional privilege of working in all three branches of state government, including 18 years as a representative in the State Assembly and 18 years as a justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Drake Roggensack issued a statement after the announcement: “Justice David T. Prosser is an exceptionally bright and thoughtful jurist whose presence on the court will be greatly missed. David has brought unique perspectives to court discussions, thereby increasing the court’s ability to understand difficult problems presented to us for resolution.”

Prosser was first appointed to the Supreme Court by Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson in 1998 to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of former Justice Janine P. Geske.

Prosser was elected to a 10-year term in 2001 and re-elected in 2011, in a close race with huge voting irregularities in Waukesha County.

Prosser has been a chief ally of Gov. Scott Walker and, when the justice ran for re-election in 2011 he had strong support from right-wing organizations, including the anti-gay Family Research Council’s Super PAC.

FRC, in that campaign, criticized Prosser’s main rival, JoAnne Kloppenburg, as having “liberal special interests.”

Prosser also benefitted in the campaign from about $1 million in advertising from two groups linked to Koch Industries – Citizens for a Strong America and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. In March 2011, Prosser voted with the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to overturn a lower court decision allowing a public challenge to a permit that gave Koch’s Georgia Pacific plants more leeway in dumping phosphorus into Fox River waterways.

A year earlier, Prosser gained national name recognition after calling Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson “a total bitch” and threatening to “destroy her” in a closed-door meeting.

The media also reported that in June 2011 Prosser got into an altercation with Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in her office, putting his hands around her neck during a meeting before the court announced its split-ruling upholding Walker’s anti-union legislation.

Walker issued a statement this week saying, “Prosser has faithfully served the state of Wisconsin for decades. Throughout his almost 18 years of service on the state Supreme Court, he demonstrated his love for the law and commitment to Wisconsin’s citizens.”

Prior to joining the court, he served as a commissioner on the Wisconsin Tax Appeals Commission from 1997 to 1998 and as a representative in the Assembly from 1978 through 1996, including two years as speaker and five years as minority leader.

Before that, Prossser served as a district attorney in Outagamie County, administrative assistant to then-U.S. Rep. Harold V. Froehlich and as an attorney-advisor for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Merit selection: The best way to end judicial corruption

In the almost 4,000 years since Hammurabi codified Babylonian law, Western cultures have held judicial fairness and impartiality as an ideal. To be sure, it’s an ideal sometimes honored more in the breach than in the keeping, but it’s an unchanging ideal nonetheless.

Today, in Wisconsin, that ideal is under attack, from enemies both old and new.

Wisconsin elects its judges and elections mean donations and donations mean influence. The more money that flows into a judge’s coffers, the greater the chances that fairness and impartiality are at risk.

It’s critical for Wisconsin to reconsider the way judges are selected. The American Bar Association has advocated for merit selection since 1937. Merit selection, which is used in two-thirds of the states, relies on neutral experts and nonpartisan boards to select a qualified pool of candidates from which the governor can choose. In some states, approval of the senate also is required.

Under the system, judges must stand for retention after a determined number of years. The public is asked to vote only on whether to keep them. There are no competitive elections.

Alternately, the Wisconsin Bar Association has proposed a constitutional amendment that would limit justices to a single, 16-year term. According to WAB, the term limits would “engender greater public confidence in the court’s ability to pursue justice independently of political influence.”

We don’t think term limits are strong enough to solve the problem. Only merit selection upholds the ideal of blind justice.

Wisconsin’s already corrupt system has been further damaged by two high court rulings, one from Washington and the other from Madison.

In its Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ratcheted up brazen judicial bribery by removing limits on how much donors can contribute secretly to PACs to influence elections.

In Wisconsin, the problem is compounded by a state Supreme Court decision that campaigns can coordinate election strategies directly with dark money groups. The story of how such coordination became legal demonstrates how this kind of corruption works.

Several dark money groups were charged in a state “John Doe” case with illegal coordination during Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign. The same groups had given $8 million to four of the conservative justices on the bench.

So, when the case arrived at the high court, its outcome was a foregone conclusion. But the paid-for justices went further than anyone imagined they would. They not only dismissed the case against their donor, but ignored all legal precedent and tossed out the law banning such coordination. Then they ordered the evidence to be destroyed.

Why weren’t those justices recused from a case in which there was such a blatant conflict of interest? Just because, they said.

On April 5, with nearly four times the anonymous cash spent for her as for her opponent, Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley won a 10-year term on the high court. Now the dark money groups have five-two control over justice in the state.

Money over merit: A majority of area lawyers said Bradley was unqualified. She’d never served on a judicial bench until 2012, when Scott Walker appointed her to a Milwaukee Circuit Court position. Last fall, following the death of Justice Patrick Crooks, Walker elevated her to the high court to finish out Crooks’ term, making her the incumbent in the election.

WiG is not alone in calling for reform. On April 5, 11 diverse towns in Wisconsin held referenda asking whether to amend the Constitution to undo Citizens United by declaring that money is not speech. Between 74 and 88 percent of voters said yes. That brought the total number of Wisconsin communities who’ve voted to nix Citizens United to 72. Forty-four percent of the state’s citizens live in those jurisdictions.

We need Citizens United to be thrown on the trash heap of history, and we must stop electing justices and appoint them on merit. Fair and impartial justice must not be negotiable.

Assembly Democrats call on Rebecca Bradley to resign

Assembly Democrats are stepping up their attacks on Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley over her inflammatory writings about LGBT people and feminists.

The writings were uncovered by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now just weeks before she faces challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg at the polls on April 5 to retain her interim position on the state’s highest court. She was appointed to the position by Gov. Scott Walker, who’s named her to all the judicial positions she’s ever held, beginning in 2012.

Last week, state Reps. Lisa Subeck and Chris Taylor called upon Bradley to resign over her writings blaming victims of sexual assault and equating the use of birth control with murder.

“Rebecca Bradley’s extreme and hate-filled beliefs make her unfit to serve on our state’s highest court, Rep. Subeck said in a statement. “From calling members of the LGBTQ community ‘degenerates’ and ‘queers’ to believing that women play a role in date rape, this is a person who has extreme biases, unacceptable in a justice who is supposed to embrace fairness and neutrality.’

For 11 days, Taylor tweeted Bradley asking for an apology to rape and incest victims. Bradley has yet to respond, according to Taylor’s office.

“Justice Bradley believes that pharmacists should be able to impose their personal beliefs on women by refusing to fill birth control prescriptions,” Taylor said in the same statement. “It is frightening to consider Justice Bradley inserting her extreme beliefs into what should be an independent and fair state Supreme Court. …  “Justice Rebecca Bradley’s beliefs are dangerous to the health and lives of Wisconsin women.”

Also last week, Rep. Mark Spreitzer announced his support for an effort by Fair Wisconsin and LGBT leaders, including U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, to expose the funders of the right-wing PAC Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, which is running commercials for Bradley. The group’s website was registered by Lorri Pickens, who led the campaign against marriage equality in 2006.

WFA has “poured $2 million into ads for Rebecca Bradley’s campaign to fill the Wisconsin Supreme Court vacancy and plans to spend at least $3 million before the April 5 election,” according to a statement from Spreitzer’s office.

“As an LGBT leader and strong supporter of equality, I have been deeply disturbed by the vitriolic anti-gay statements that Rebecca Bradley has made,” Spreitzer said in a statement from his office. “It is even more disturbing to learn that she is benefiting from millions of dollars in campaign spending from a group with ties to leading anti-equality activists and the anti-LGBT group Wisconsin Family Action. During Sunshine Week in Wisconsin, I wholeheartedly support Fair Wisconsin’s efforts to expose the funders of this group, as transparency is the only way to root out the dark money that supports anti-equality rhetoric.”

“I’d like to think many of the people funding Rebecca Bradley’s campaign don’t support her homophobic statements, but if they are contributing to the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, I think their money will speak for itself,” Spreitzer added. “Our now-gutted campaign finance laws allow these secret groups to dump millions into our elections without disclosing who they really are. ….  Any individual, business or organization that donates to this group should be exposed so the public knows where they stand and what kind of rhetoric they are funding.”

The case for Rebecca Bradley’s conversion is weak

The wages of Rebecca Bradley’s “sins” have caught up with her in a big way. But will they lead to the death of her career — and will they further corrode the reputation of her political handler, Gov. Scott Walker?

Wisconsinites will get part of the answer on April 5, when Bradley, currently serving as an interim Supreme Court justice, faces her infinitely more qualified challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg at the polls for a full 10-year term on the bench.

Foremost among Bradley’s “sins” are the viscerally hateful anti-gay columns she penned as a student at Marquette University about gays, people with AIDS, Democrats, feminists and every other group singled out by the extreme right during the “culture wars” of the early 1990s.

She claims to have changed her views about gays in the ensuing 20-plus years. Supporting that claim, Bradley sought out WiG’s endorsement for her first and only judicial election. During our interview with her, she seemed at ease, quite likeable and sincere in her support for LGBT rights.

But on every other far-right issue, Bradley has remained immovable, which suggests that her support for LGBT individuals comes with unspoken qualifiers. In light of our interview, for instance, we were surprised to learn recently that she sits on the governing board of the St. Thomas Moore Lawyers Society. That organization pushes for “religious rights” of the kind that involve trampling on other people’s rights in the name of religion, such as allowing people who own public accommodations to deny services to gays and lesbians if they feel to do so would violate their beliefs.

The only evidence Bradley has offered of her more inclusive adult sensibilities seems either self-serving or scandalous. She appeared at a Fair Wisconsin fundraiser, which proves she’s willing to rub elbows with LGBT people to further her electoral career. She says she’d perform a same-sex wedding, if asked; but after four years on the bench she’s never been asked, which indicates she doesn’t know many gay and lesbian people very well, at least not the marrying kind.

Ironically, the most convincing evidence that Bradley’s strict Roman Catholic code of sexual morality has evolved comes from her personal life: She was divorced after eight years of marriage, had an extramarital affair and had what sounds like a “friend with benefits” relationship with her former boss after they stopped dating “exclusively.” She’s been accused of breaching ethical legal standards by representing that boss in a custody battle with his ex-wife, despite the objection of the ex-wife and her lawyer. Her description of that episode suggests a measure of petty vindictiveness between the two women — a scenario that’s troubling because she took the personal soap opera into a court of law.

Otherwise, Bradley has maintained her fundamentalist Catholic view on choice — and even contraception. In 2002, she equated abortion with murder and compared it to slavery and the Holocaust. In 2006, she penned a column defending a pharmacist’s right to deny contraception as an act of religious conscience. Defying scientific consensus, she described certain contraceptives as abortifacients, meaning they cause miscarriages. That’s a view that elevates Catholic doctrine above science.

Friends and allies

The most telling indicator of Bradley’s current state of mind is the company she keeps, and that should trouble voters for a variety of reasons. Her life is peopled with the same kinds of organizations and individuals with whom she was linked in the early 1990s.

Bradley has not earned her judicial career through her stellar educational background, legal writings, major cases or her legal career — which in part has consisted of defending doctors from malpractice claims and corporations from liability suits. She’s won the kind of honors that glossy magazines sell to advertisers, and she received the 2010 Women in Law Award from the Wisconsin Law Journal. But she did not have a Supreme Court-level legal profile outside of religious- and corporate-right circles.

Since 2012 Bradley has been hand-groomed for the bench by Walker, who’s appointed her to every judicial position she’s held during the ensuing four-year period. It’s easy to imagine that Walker was mentoring Bradley expressly for the state’s highest court.

If that’s true, it must have felt like a windfall for Walker when Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks dropped dead just months after Walker had elevated Bradley to an appeals court position. The tragedy gave Walker the chance to anoint his disciple as an interim justice on the high court.

Now, just a few months later, she can run as an incumbent for Crooks’ expired 10-year term.

During Crooks’ tenure, the Wisconsin Supreme Court leaned conservative by a 5–2 margin. But while Crooks ruled with his right-wing judicial colleagues 80 percent of the time, Bradley likely can be counted on as reliably as Walker’s other slavish supporters on the bench. She certainly feels as if she can count on him: She registered the domain name justicebradley.com before she’d even applied for the interim position — possibly before Crooks’ body was interned.

Bradley’s fierce partisanship and lack of political independence should concern voters. The Republican Party is virtually handling her campaign, which is being heavily funded by special-interest corporate groups. It’s safe to say that she’s deeply in the pocket of those corporations, which are bent on rolling back clean air and water regulations, getting rid of unions and allowing for endless political spending. She’s also served as president of the Milwaukee Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society, a group whose mission could have been lifted from Charles and David Koch’s greediest dreams.

The combination of Bradley’s over-the-top anti-gay writings and her fierce loyalty to the Republican Party and its moneyed special interests have prompted protests against her during the final weeks of the campaign.

We Are Wisconsin has either staged or planned demonstrations outside of every Supreme Court candidate debate. Protesters have carried signs printed with some of Bradley’s most offensive writings. But group member Saul Owen said it’s the totality of Bradley’s record — the unseemly partisanship, the big-money support and the political opportunism as well as the hate rhetoric — that has local leaders and advocates alarmed, not only by Bradley’s candidacy but about the degradation of justice in Wisconsin that it embodies.

Wisconsin Justice Rebecca Bradley. — PHOTO: Courtesy
Wisconsin Justice Rebecca Bradley. — PHOTO: Courtesy

“She can’t be trusted to hold everyone equally under the eyes of the law,” Newton said.

We Are Wisconsin has called upon Bradley to pull out of the race, charging that her campaign has tainted even further the Supreme Court’s already heavily strained credibility.

We Are Wisconsin plans to hold its next demonstration on Friday, March 18, outside a debate hosted by Wisconsin Public Television.

Closed loop

Bradley and Kloppenburg were virtually tied in the most recent poll, which was taken in February. That was before the indefatigable Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, uncovered and shared Bradley’s explosive hate writings from the Marquette Tribune. It also was before a misleading but effective anti-Kloppenburg television ad hit the airwaves, along with other contorted and inflammatory advertising.

The ads were paid for by an astroturf group misleadingly named Wisconsin Alliance for Reform. The group formed last October to run ads attacking former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. The group’s Web domain reportedly was purchased by Lorri Pickens, whose husband has connections to Bemis, a company owned by the family that Ron Johnson married into. The company remains one of Johnson’s company’s best customers.
For a long time, Pickens has been associated, either directly or indirectly, with right-wing corporate PACs such as the Koch-brothers-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. She has also worked with Julaine Appling’s anti-gay Wisconsin Family Action, and she managed Vote Yes for Marriage, the group that supported the 2006 state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage and later sought to overturn the state’s domestic partnership registry. (WFA is not making an endorsement in the Supreme Court race.)

That connection alone argues against Bradley’s self-proclaimed new worldview. And, on close inspection, her professional life has been lived in a closed loop with some of the same right-wing evangelicals and corporate-owned political hacks with whom she bonded during her years as a shock columnist at the Marquette Tribune, writing about how women play a role in their own rape.

Walker claims he had no knowledge of Rebecca Bradley’s writings when he appointed her as an interim justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Bradley didn’t disclose the college columns in her applications for judicial appointments. Where the forms asked for academic and extracurricular activities, she listed her time as a Marquette University student senator and as editor of the student newspaper at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School.

But Walker’s disavowal is hard for anyone informed about his history with Bradley to believe.

Both were student Republicans whose time at Marquette overlapped, and both wrote conservative commentaries for the Marquette Tribune. Today, the two travel in the same corporate-right Republican circles, and they’re practically neighbors. Their Wauwatosa homes sit around the corner from each other, less than half a mile apart.

JoAnne Kloppenburg
JoAnne Kloppenburg

Bradley’s most controversial writings, including the column in which she called gay people “queers” and “degenerates” who deserved to die of AIDS, were published two years after Walker dropped out of college. But they had a common acquaintance — Jim Villa, one of Walker’s longest and most trusted advisers. Villa served as Walker’s chief of staff for five years when the governor was Milwaukee County executive, and he also served as an informal adviser during Walker’s brief presidential run last year.

Villa was a target during the John Doe investigation into possible illegal political activities among Walker’s Milwaukee County staff. Investigators, who suspected Villa of misconduct in public office and solicitation of public employees to commit misconduct, applied for a search warrant of Villa’s home and office.

Villa was not charged and went on to receive a cushy appointment from Walker in 2014 as the UW System’s vice president of university relations. Villa, who was president of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin at the time, had no discernible qualifications for the job, which came with a salary of $178,000. Critics of Walker’s civil service overhaul have cited Villa’s hiring as a blatant example of the cronyism they say will become the new norm in state hiring decisions under the revamped law.

Ross contends that it’s inconceivable Villa wouldn’t have mentioned the columns to Walker, given their inflammatory nature and the pair’s decades-long relationship.

But Villa denied that allegation to The Associated Press, saying, “Not only did I not speak to him about it, I didn’t remember those writings.”

That statement rings especially false because Villa’s gay sexual orientation, a well-known secret in GOP political circles, would make Bradley’s diatribes against “homosexuals” hard to forget — especially given their shocking level of malice: “The homosexuals and drug addicts who do essentially kill themselves and others through their own behavior deservedly receive none of my sympathy,” Bradley wrote on Feb. 28, 1992, in a statement that typifies the aggressive style of her writings at the time.

For all the public knows, it might have been Villa’s coming out to his friend Bradley that led to her changing attitude toward LGBT people. But Villa declined to return a phone message left by WiG seeking clarification.

A lose-lose situation?

There’s a reason Walker has refused to say whether he would have appointed Bradley if he’d known of her public writing in advance: If he replied in the affirmative, he’d run the risk of alienating all but the right-wing evangelists who form the hard core of Republican loyalists. On the other hand, if Walker condemned Bradley’s unseemly written tirades, then he might suffer a backlash from the same voters.

Perhaps that’s why Bradley’s apologies for her past writings and her insistence that she has changed have struck so many people as hollow. If she backtracks on the vitriol that would inspire homophobes to the polls to support her in droves, she’s undermining her own election effort.

Bradley’s attempts to temper her past writings already have some of her most bigoted supporters up in arms.

On Charlie Sykes’ online blog Right Wisconsin, one anti-gay follower wrote: “If Bradley backs down here, she loses my vote. She needs to show some spine. The majority of voters in April will be older and whiter. That demographic does not thing (sic) gays are equal to straights.

Another wrote (quoted verbatim): “If they stay within their sex preference and not frakkin cheat, that gene goes away. Benefit for marriage is for those who can reproduce within their sex preference. BY the way, she was correct back then, gays, bisexuals and drug users spread HIV and cost millions in healthcare costs. Go ride a seatless bike.”

Bradley surely does not want to be associated with that kind of ignorance, but without such supporters she might very well lose the race, despite the millions that corporate special interests will likely spend on her.

The same holds true for Walker. His political fate might now be intertwined with his Frankenstein’s monster. With approval numbers that are under water, Walker cannot afford to be associated with either the bigoted rage surrounding his surrogate’s image or a repudiation of that rage.

This time, whatever the outcome of the Supreme Court race, Walker seems to have manipulated himself into a corner. After all the failed attempts he’s made to keep his strategic moves in the dark, he still hasn’t learned that he’s being watched by people like Ross and reported on by all of the state’s responsible media.