Walker draws fire for appointing donor to Supreme Court

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

As predicted, Gov. Scott Walker has appointed Appeals Court Judge Rebecca Bradley to complete the term of deceased Justice Patrick Crooks on the state Supreme Court. Crooks, who had announced his plan not to seek another term in September, died suddenly on the job on Sept. 21.

The appointment of Bradley, a Walker donor who had never served on the bench until Walker appointed her to a circuit court position three years ago, has outraged critics from both sides of the aisle. They had urged Walker to either leave the position vacant until the next election in April or appoint someone who was not already an announced candidate in the race, as Bradley was.

The circumstances surrounding Bradley’s appointment make it a first. Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg and Circuit Court Judge Joe Donald are also announced candidates, but neither sought Walker’s appointment, as Bradley did.

Walker is unlikely to have appointed either of them due to politics.

Judicial races in Wisconsin are nominally nonpartisan, but the reality is that conservatives and liberals — and well-funded outside groups — coalesce around the candidates they favor and spend millions helping to elect them.

Still, “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,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling. “This power grab sets a terrible precedent and doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Critics say that Walker’s appointment of Bradley gives the relatively inexperienced candidate a big boost over her more-seasoned competition. It also turns the race into a referendum on Walker, according to leaders on both sides of the aisle.

“The fact that Walker twice named her to judgeships before makes her ‘Walker’s candidate,’ Kloppenburg said in a statement.

Walker’s first appointment of Bradley helped her narrowly win her first judicial race to retain the job he gave her. Also helping her victory were $167,000 in contributions from the Koch brother’s Club for Growth and the Republican Party.

Bradley began her legal career protecting corporations from liability lawsuits and doctors from malpractice suits. She moved on to commercial, technology and intellectual property law before Walker lifted her from obscurity by seating her on a circuit court bench in 2012.

Although Crooks was considered a swing vote on the court, he ruled with the Republican majority 80 percent of the time. Bradley has signaled that she might be more flexible than the standard-issue Walker acolyte on somce issues, including LGBT rights and child welfare.

But her backing comes from such right-wing groups as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which reportedly urged another conservative candidate not to run against her. Brady served as president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Federaliost Sociaty, a far-right lawyers group, and belonged to the Thomas Moore Society, a conservative Catholic legal group. She’s also belonged to the Republican National Lawyers Association.

During what critics called Walker’s “coronation” of Bradley, he claimed she had the best resume for the job, even though she’s only been a judge for three years and was appointed to every position she’s held by Walker. Perhaps one of her attractions is Bradley’s relative youth. At 44, she could go on to serve several 10-year terms, helping to keep a solid right-wing majority on the state’s high court for an entire generation.

Reactions to Bradley’s appointment were swift and angry.

“(Walker) is giving a campaign contributor 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,” charged Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Martha Laning in a prepared statement. Rebecca Bradley has given … to Gov. Walker and today it is paying off for her with her appointment to the Supreme Court.”

But Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, warned that Bradley’s appointment could backfire: “The governor making this appointment so close to the election does not serve the public well but is in line with Republicans’ continued right-wing special interest stranglehold on our state. However, I question why a judicial candidate would want to be so closely linked to a governor with a 37 percent approval rating.”

Kloppenburg came close to unseating controversial 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.

Donald is positioning himself as the only non-partisan candidate in the race. 

Garren Randolph, a spokesperson for the Joe Donald for Justice campaign, issued a press release saying that unlike Bradley or Kloppenburg, Donald “has served for 19 years as an independent judge, and is earning support across the ideological spectrum because he is the only candidate in the race who represents a truly independent judiciary.”

Donald was appointed by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.

“Neither Scott Walker nor his political opponents can expect Judge Donald to toe the party line — any party,” Randolph said in his statement.