Right-wing money, politics at issue in Wisconsin Supreme Court race

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

The two rivals trying to unseat Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley, whom Gov. Scott Walker appointed to the court last October, warned of the influence of partisan politics on the state’s highest court at a candidate forum on Jan. 27.

Bradley and challengers JoAnne Kloppenburg and Joe Donald appeared together for the first time at a forum hosted by the Milwaukee Bar Association, three weeks ahead of the Feb. 16 primary that will narrow the field to two before the April 5 general election.

All three are seeking a 10-year term to replace Justice Patrick Crooks, who died in September. By appointing the relatively inexperienced Bradley, Walker ensured that she’d have the huge advantage of incumbency heading into the elections. Judicial incumbents nearly always win re-election, but some political observers say this appointment could backfire, given Walker’s low approval rating. It could turn the race into a referendum against the unpopular governor.

“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 at the time of the appointment. “This power grab sets a terrible precedent and doesn’t pass the smell test.”

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

“The Bradley campaign and the Republican Party are essentially one and the same,” said a statement from Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Joe Donald’s campaign manager, Andy Suchorski, at the time of her appointment.

Neither Kloppenburg nor Donald applied for the vacancy, saying it’s unethical for an announced candidate to apply for a judicial seat while campaigning for it. Even though each is more qualified, they would never have been considered anyhow, given their lack of right-wing credentials.

Walker has appointed Bradley, who has only about four years of judicial experience, to every judicial position that she’s held.

Bradley was so certain he would appoint her to the high court that she registered a website as a Supreme Court justice before the applications were even due.

On Jan. 27, however, Bradley pledged to run “a positive and nonpartisan” campaign and said she welcomes support from anyone who offers it.

She’s a Walker donor, however, and her past support has come primarily from the Republican Party and the dark money groups that pile huge amounts of cash into the coffers of tea party political candidates.

Walker’s first appointment of Bradley helped her narrowly win her race to retain the circuit court job he gave her. But $167,000 from the Koch brother’s Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce also contributed to that victory. The Koch brothers and their corporate allies oppose all government regulations, all watchdog groups and limits on money in politics, and all government assistance programs, including college aid, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Their ultimate goal is to sell off all public land to corporate interests and privatize all government functions except the military.

Bradley is their perfect candidate. A former president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Federalist Society, a far-right libertarian lawyers group, she’s also belonged to the Thomas Moore Society, a conservative Catholic legal group, and the Republican National Lawyers Association. She began her legal career protecting corporations from liability lawsuits and doctors from malpractice suits.

At the Jan. 27 forum, Kloppenburg, a state appellate judge who was elected to that position on her own, said she would accept campaign funds from any groups except political parties. She said her experience makes her best to do “justice without fear or favor” and to “stand up to special interests.”

Donald, a Milwaukee County Circuit judge, touted his independence. He said the election is important to restore integrity at the Supreme Court and that without a new independent, “we’re stuck with an ideologue on the court for the next 30 years,” referring to Bradley, who is only 44 years old.