UPDATED: The death of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks with 10 months left in his term has set up a spring election that’s as much a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker as it is on who should serve on the state’s highest court.
Walker has appointed appeals Judge Rebecca Bradley to hold the position in advance of the election next year, in which she’s already a candidate.
Common Cause in Wisconsin, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Wisconsin Voices had sent Walker a letter asking him not to name one of the three candidates for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to fill out Crooks’ term, which runs through July 31, 2016.
But Walker did not heed their advice. He introduced Bradley as the appointee during a news conference on Oct. 9. The AP reported the appointment earlier in the day.
Bradley, at the news conference, said she didn’t expect the appointment by Walker to give her an advantage — or disadvantage — on Election Day. “I think when the voters are evaluating judicial candidates they look less at who’s appointed them and they look at their record on the bench, how they conducted their campaigns and what their qualifications and experiences are. I don’t think they look at who has appointed that judge or justice.”
The governor has been behind Bradley during every step of her rapid judicial rise. He’s twice named her to lower court openings and he likely was a factor in the $167,000 she got from the Koch brothers’ Club for Growth and the Republican Party to retain the relatively obscure seat to which he first appointed her on Milwaukee Circuit Court’s Branch 45.
That was in 2012. In 2013, aided by all the donations, she retained the seat against a challenger, earning 53 percent of the vote. In May, Walker appointed Bradley to the District 1 Court of Appeals.
Now, just three years after her first appointment to the bench by Walker, Bradley, 43, has her sights set on the state’s highest court. With her appointment by Walker, she has the advantage of running as an incumbent in the race for a 10-year term next April.
Despite holding generally conservative views on issues like abortion and corporate entitlements, Bradley has high-profile friends in Milwaukee’s LGBT community and seemed very pro-gay during an interview with WiG two years ago. Likable and charismatic, she’s not the kind of judicial candidate normally associated with Wisconsin Republicans. It’s hard to predict what kind of Supreme Court jurist she’d make, but the safest guess is that she’d be more of a swing vote than a staunch ideologue.
Two other candidates had also announced their plans to run before Crooks died — JoAnne Kloppenburg and Joe Donald. Both are far more experienced jurists than Bradley and both are to the left of her politically.
In the past, Democrats have heavily backed Appeals Court Judge Kloppenburg. She came close to unseating Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser in 2011, losing by 7,000 votes out of the 5 million cast. That race came at a time when left-wing bitterness against Walker over Act 10 was at its height. Prosser vowed on the campaign trail to support the governor’s policies from the bench — a jarring message to deliver in a campaign that’s supposed to be non-partisan.
Kloppenburg, however, took the high road, running a relatively low-key campaign in which she refused to talk about partisan issues. She says she’ll be more aggressive in this race.
While Kloppenburg is generally considered the frontrunner for progressives, her fundraising for the 2016 race has been languid so far. Most of the $27,000 she’d raised as of September came from a loan she made to her own campaign.
The third candidate, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald, presents himself as the most politically independent choice of the three, although Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca and other Democrats back him. He began his campaign with robust fundraising, taking in $109,000 by the end of June.
Races for the Supreme Court are officially nonpartisan, but the reality in recent years has been conservatives and liberals — and well-funded outside groups — coalesce around the candidates they favor and spend millions helping to elect them.
Naming Bradley to the court solidifies Walker’s ties with her and makes the election “absolutely … a referendum on Walker,” Jay Heck, director of government watchdog group Common Cause in Wisconsin, said before the appointment. “That’s really not where the Supreme Court needs to be.”
In defense of considering Bradley for the vacant seat, Walker had cited two examples of judges who were appointed to openings and later ran for full terms. But in both cases from the 1990s, the judges had not announced their plans to run before they were appointed by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson.
The situation caused by Crooks’ death on Sept. 21 is different.
Crooks, who had been in failing health, had said he was not going to run for re-election. All three of the candidates were actively campaigning when Crooks died.
Walker had insisted that he would base his appointment decision on three criteria: finding someone who is an outstanding attorney, has integrity and “understands the proper role of a judge.”
Earlier this month, Kloppenburg said appointing Bradley “would appear to be an attempt to thwart the people’s will.”
In a statement on Oct. 9, Kloppenburg said, “The choice in this campaign could now not be clearer: Gov. Walker’s choice or the people’s choice. I am running to be the people’s choice for Supreme Court. And I am asking the people of Wisconsin to stand with me in the coming election, for the integrity of our judicial system and against partisan politics and special interests on our Court.”
Garren Randolph, a spokesperson for the Joe Donald for Justice campaign, said, “What the people of Wisconsin want is truly independent judges. The public expects judges who don’t come to the bench with an ideological agenda, and who approach cases with an open mind. Cases should be decided based on the facts, the application of law, and under constitutional principles.
“By appointing Rebecca Bradley to the Circuit Court, to the Court of Appeals and now to the Supreme Court, Gov. Scott Walker has now elevated a loyal ally three times in four years, including twice in the last year. This abbreviated process simply cannot withstand public scrutiny.”
Reaction to the appointment
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin, responding to Bradley’s appointment on Oct. 9, said in a news release, “Wisconsin residents deserve a fair and impartial Supreme Court and Gov. Walker’s appointment of a campaign contributor who has already declared she is running for the open seat next year has destroyed any possibility of a fair election.”
The party said Walker is giving Bradley “an unfair advantage in the race next year so Wisconsin residents will have no chance at having an open and fair election for the Supreme Court Justice seat. Rebecca Bradley has given generously to Gov. Walker and today it is paying off for her with her appointment to the Supreme Court.”
Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha added, “It is no surprise that Gov. Walker appointed the handpicked conservative candidate for Supreme Court. The governor’s actions are entirely consistent with Republican efforts to ensure the continued protection of corporate and special interests over the economic security of Wisconsin citizens.”
And Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse said, “It is unprecedented for a Wisconsin governor of any party to appoint a declared judicial candidate to the Supreme Court this close to an election. This power grab sets a terrible precedent and doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Editor’s note: This story is being updated.