The Wisconsin Supreme Court currently has a 4–3 conservative tilt, but if right-wing Republican groups succeed in ousting two-term incumbent justice Ann Walsh Bradley from the bench on April 7, the state’s highest court will move farther rightward, with a solid majority of 5–2.
To ensure this happens, major corporate money, including third-party donations from such lobbying groups as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Koch brothers-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth, is expected to flow into the campaign of Bradley’s opponent. Together the two groups spent an estimated $8.3 million for “issue ads” helping to elect conservative justices Annette Ziegler, Michael Gableman, David Prosser and Patience Roggensack, according to wiconsinwatch.org. That amount dwarfs the $3.2 million spent by those same judges on their own campaigns.
Judicial positions are nominally non-partisan, but any illusion that’s the case evaporated long ago. Bradley’s opponent — Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley — denies he has any ideological bias, but he’s sent out tweets using the hashtag #tcot, which stands for “top conservatives on Twitter.” He admits that the Republican Party helped circulate his nominating papers, and he’s appeared at GOP gatherings throughout the state promoting his conservative agenda and asking for help.
Daley told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he’s attended those events simply to speak with voters who are most likely to share his philosophy. He called Bradley an “activist judge,” a criticism that Republicans in the state frequently aim at judges who’ve issued opinions against Gov. Scott Walker’s policy agenda, including his union-busting Act 10 and his law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls.
In a conversation with WiG, Bradley blasted Daley for co-opting the Republican agenda and for having Republican operatives on his campaign staff. She said that her campaign did not accept help from the Democratic Party to circulate her nominating papers and that her campaign would not accept contributions from political parties or attorneys and litigants with pending cases.
In fact, Bradley said that maintaining judicial independence is the centerpiece of her retention bid. It’s not only unethical for partisanship and campaign donations to influence application of the law, she said, but it also erodes the public’s perception of a fair justice system.
Knowing that conservatives would probably spend massive amounts of money on advertising and TV commercials that misrepresent her record, Bradley thought long and hard about seeking a third term on the bench.
“I know what is coming in the last few days or weeks of the campaign,” she said.
But it’s that knowledge that ultimately determined her decision to run. “I think it’s time to stop this influx of partisanship in the judiciary,” she said. “My vision of a judiciary is different form what we’ve seen in the recent past five years.”
According to Bradley, Wisconsin ranks No. 2 in the nation for special interest advertising in judicial races — behind only Pennsylvania.
“It’s not this way in other states, and it doesn’t have to be this way in Wisconsin,” she said.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and The Associated Press contributed to this article.