Milwaukee circuit court candidate Jean Kies hopes to beat the odds by unseating Walker appointee

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Gov. Scott Walker’s appointment of Rebecca Bradley to a Milwaukee Circuit Court bench in 2012 was the first step in a meteoric judicial career that he seems to have mapped out for his conservative friend and donor. Some legal experts complained at the time that Walker should have left the seat vacant for a few months rather than give a political ally the advantage of running as an incumbent.

Incumbency matters in judicial races — it matters a lot. At the circuit court level, almost 90 percent of judges appointed in the state since 2000 have retained their seats in the following election, according to the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team. The power of judicial incumbency is so strong that only 42 of the 99 judges appointed during that period were even challenged — and only 13 lost.

Bradley’s seat soon became vacant again when Walker appointed her to the District 1 Court of Appeals. She barely had time to set up her desk at that job before Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks literally dropped dead in his chambers, and Walker quickly appointed Bradley to serve out the remainder of his term.

Next year, she’ll have the opportunity to run as an incumbent for that job, too.

When Walker lifted Bradley to the appeals court, he appointed her conservative friend Michelle Ackerman Havas to fill her seat on Milwaukee Circuit Court’s Branch 45. Like Bradley, Havas’ resume includes the Milwaukee law firm Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek, although the latter’s resume is far more robust.

Trial lawyer Jean Kies has launched a campaign to halt Walker’s use of Branch 45 as what critics call a nursery to cultivate judges who share his political ideology and owe him their careers. To win, Kies must overcome not only Havas’ several months of incumbency, but also massive financial support for her from right-wing PACs and the Republican Party — if Bradley’s bid for retention in 2013 is any indication. 

Bradley drew the support of the Republican Party, as well as $167,00 from the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and Wisconsin and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

Although judicial races are billed as “nonpartisan,” in practice they can be as hyper-partisan as the most hotly contested political races. So Havas could receive the same level of support that Bradley did — and from the same players. The only thing that might prevent that scenario is that 2016 is a presidential election year, when conservative funders have much bigger fish to fry than a Milwaukee circuit court judgeship.

Kies, 49, is an energetic woman who says she’s wanted to be a judge for many years but waited until her two sons were old enough to be somewhat self-sufficient. The two boys are now 21 and 16.

For her entire legal career, Kies has worked under what she refers to as her “own shingle,” rather than join a large law firm. In that capacity, she’s had the opportunity to work on a broad range of cases and with clients from all backgrounds and walks of life, she says.

Kies estimates that since graduating from Marquette University Law School about 25 years ago, she’s taken on more than 1,000 civil and 1,000 criminal cases. She says the diversity of her legal background makes her an exceptional judicial candidate.

In contemplating a judicial position for so long, Kies has tried to remain suitably nonpartisan. There will be no revelations that she signed the petition to recall Walker, she says, because she didn’t do it.

“I’ve been very quietly politically in anticipation for a long time that I wanted to do this,” she says.

But Kies acknowledges that her philosophical leanings are progressive, quickly adding that justice must be blind and guided by the law, not personal and guided by corporate donors.

“I see the role of the judge as like being a baseball umpire,” she explains. “The judge calls the ball or the strike. … Their (the judge’s) role is to make sure the law is followed fairly, justly and impartially.”

Kies has a long list of endorsements on her website (jeankiesforjudge.com), and they’re overwhelmingly from progressives. The list includes include former Supreme Court candidate Ed Fallone, state Sens. Lena Taylor and Tim Carpenter, state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, former state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman, County Supervisor Jason Haas, Aldermen Tony Zielinski and Terry Witkowski, along with a number of suburban officials and county circuit judges.

Voters won’t learn until next April whether Walker is on a judicial star-making roll in Branch 45 or if Bradley was just a highly financed fluke. Meanwhile, Kies is campaigning hard and touting her courtroom experience over Havas’ political connections as making her a better choice for the job.