The Wisconsin Supreme Court this week rejected Democrats’ efforts to force the release of training videos featuring Republican Brad Schimel before he became attorney general, finding that he didn’t say anything inappropriate in them, as Democrats initially alleged, and that releasing them could hurt prosecutors and crime victims.
The recordings don’t reveal any misconduct and releasing them would reveal prosecutor strategies as well as re-traumatize victims in a high-profile sexual extortion case, the court’s conservative majority ruled in a 5-2 decision.
The state Democratic Party asked the state Department of Justice in 2014 to release videos of presentations on sexual predators that Schimel gave in 2009 and 2013, when he was the Waukesha County district attorney.
The 2009 video shows Schimel discussing prosecution strategies.
In the 2013 video, Schimel recounts a case in which a Waukesha County high school student posed as a woman online, obtained graphic pictures from male classmates and blackmailed them into sexual acts.
The Democrats’ demanded the videos during the height of Schimel’s attorney general campaign, alleging they showed him making ethnic and racial slurs, as well as sexist comments.
The DOJ refused to hand over the videos, arguing that they reveal prosecutorial strategies and could re-traumatize the blackmail victims.
That stance prompted Democrats to sue.
A Madison judge who viewed the videos found that Schimel didn’t make any inappropriate remarks and that no victims were identified by name.
Both the judge and a state appeals court ruled the videos should be released.
The DOJ allowed the Democrats’ attorney to view the videos, after which he dropped the misconduct claims, according to court documents.
The state Supreme Court sided with DOJ, ruling the videos don’t show any official misconduct and the lawsuit suggests a partisan purpose behind the request.
Writing for the majority, Justice Rebecca Bradley likened the 2009 video to prosecutors’ case files, which are exempt from Wisconsin’s open records law.
The video clearly contains discussions of tactics and could be widely disseminated online, helping criminals avoid detection, the court found.
Bradley acknowledged that Schimel doesn’t name any victims in the 2013 video, but she wrote that someone could figure out who they are from the context. That could re-traumatize them in violation of a state constitutional amendment that requires the state to treat crime victims with dignity, she wrote.
“The denial of public access occurs only in exceptional cases. This case presents one of those exceptional situations,” Bradley wrote. “The two videos requested here do not contain any evidence of official misconduct. Our review independently demonstrates that the reasons proffered (for withholding the videos) are sufficient and supported by the facts in this case.”
The court’s two liberal-leaning justices, Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, dissented.
Abrahamson wrote that the court should have ordered the videos released with sensitive information redacted.
She chastised the majority for suggesting that the request was politically motivated, noting that the open records law doesn’t require requestors to explain their motivation. She added the ruling offers no limits on when protecting victims trumps disclosure.
“What has the majority achieved with its opinion grounded in speculative, abstract, and unsubstantiated fears? The answer for me is: A dimming of the light on public oversight of government, especially in matters pertaining to criminal justice.”
A Democratic Party spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
More than half of the applicants vying to replace retiring Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser already owe their jobs to Gov. Scott Walker — and now he could tap one of them for the state’s highest court.
Walker released the names of 10 of the 11 applicants May 20, including attorney Andrew Brown of River Falls; Madison attorney Claude Covelli; state appellate judges Mark Gundrum, Brian Hagedorn and Thomas Hruz; Jefferson County Circuit Judge Randy Koschnick, who is the father of Walker’s chief staff attorney; Marinette County Circuit Judge James Morrison; Wisconsin Public Service Commission Chairwoman Ellen Nowak; Milwaukee attorney Paul Scoptur; and Madison attorney Jim Troupis.
Walker’s office says an 11th applicant requested confidentiality. Wisconsin law says the state must withhold an applicant’s identity if the person requests confidentiality in writing, unless they become a final candidate.
Walker expects to appoint a replacement by the time Prosser retires on July 31. It will be the Republican governor’s second appointment to the state’s highest court. He appointed Justice Rebecca Bradley in October after Justice Patrick Crooks died in his chambers. Walker had appointed Bradley to judgeships twice previously, and she won re-election in April.
The governor similarly could tap a previous appointee this time around — he’s appointed at least six of the applicants to their positions.
Gundrum was elected to the state Assembly as a Republican in 1998, serving alongside Walker. Gundrum was elected to the Waukesha County Circuit Court in 2010, and Walker appointed him to the 2nd District Court of Appeals in Waukesha in 2011.
Hagedorn was Walker’s chief legal counsel until Walker appointed him to the 2nd District Court of Appeals in 2015. He previously worked in the state Department of Justice, as a Milwaukee attorney and as clerk to Justice Michael Gableman.
Walker appointed Hruz to the 3rd District Court of Appeals in 2014. Hruz, previously a Milwaukee attorney, also clerked for Prosser.
As for Morrison and Troupis, Walker appointed both to circuit judgeships — Morrison in 2012 and Troupis in 2015. Both were in private practice prior to their appointments. Troupis’ appointment was slated to continue until August, but he stepped down in May.
Walker also appointed Nowak to chair the Public Service Commission. She was legal counsel and chief of staff for the Assembly speaker and was deputy director of School Choice Wisconsin, an organization advocating charter and voucher schools.
Several of the applicants have bid for seats on the Wisconsin Supreme Court before.
Troupis and Covelli, a practicing attorney in Wisconsin for 43 years who specializes in insurance law, both lost out to Bradley for Crooks’ seat. Covelli then launched a brief campaign to compete against Bradley, ending it two months later.
Koschnick ran for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2009, unsuccessfully challenging Justice Shirley Abrahamson. He’s been Jefferson County Circuit Court judge since 1999 and was previously a public defender for the county. His daughter, Katie Ignatowski, is Walker’s chief legal counsel.
Ignatowski and Walker’s deputy legal counsel both have recused themselves from the appointment process, according to Walker’s office. Walker’s chief of staff, Rich Zipperer, and former deputy legal counsel Andrew Hitt will serve in their place.
Scoptur works as an injury attorney in Wauwatosa and as an adjunct law professor at Marquette University. Brown lives in River Falls but works at a firm in Minnesota, focusing on construction disputes.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.
A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court dealt Gov. Scott Walker a loss yesterday in upholding a ruling that preserves the independence of the state’s elected education secretary and denies the governor power of veto over the Department of Public Instruction.
The court’s conservative majority was split on whether to overturn its unanimous ruling from 20 years ago that solidified the state superintendent’s independence as head of the Department of Public Instruction. The high court’s 4–3 decision rejects arguments made by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel and upholds two lower court rulings.
The state constitution “requires the Legislature to keep the supervision of public instruction in the hands of officers of supervision of public instruction,” Justice Michael Gableman wrote for the majority. “To do otherwise would require a constitutional amendment.”
Superintendent Tony Evers has opposed overturning the law, saying the case was about preserving the office’s role as a nonpartisan constitutional officer in charge of implementing and overseeing education policy.
Evers hailed the ruling, calling it a “victory for public education and the future of our state.”
“More than anything else, this ruling provides much needed stability for our schools and the students they serve,” Evers said in a statement. “I hope we can now get back to focusing on what works best for our kids.”
Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson did not address the court’s ruling directly in his reaction. Instead, he said Walker would “continue to advocate for policies that prioritize student success.”
“Governor Walker is dedicated to challenging the status quo when it impedes the ability of parents, school boards, and students to get the best educational outcomes,” Evenson said.
Justice Department spokesman Johnny Koremenos said the agency is reviewing the decision and has no immediate comment.
The case focused on a 2011 law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Walker that gave the governor veto power over administrative rules pursued by the state superintendent. That raised questions about whether the law amounted to a violation of the 1996 state Supreme Court ruling that the office was independent of the governor’s control.
The state Justice Department argued that if the court’s 1996 ruling prohibits the Legislature from making a change to administrative rules, then the decision should be overturned. The department’s attorney argued that if the state superintendent is unhappy with the governor’s decision relative to rules, he can always go back to the Legislature and try to get it reversed.
The law is unconstitutional because it does not allow DPI and the secretary “to proceed with their duties of supervision without the Governor’s, and in some circumstances the Secretary of Administration’s approval,” Gableman wrote.
The 2011 law required all state agencies to get approval from the governor before drafting new administrative rules — the legal language that enacts agency policies and laws passed by the Legislature. Under previous law, the rules were written by state agencies and reviewed by the Legislature, but not the governor, before taking effect.
Parents and members of the teachers’ union, with backing from organizations representing school administrators and school boards, filed a lawsuit in 2011 challenging the portion of the law that gives the governor the ability to block rules at DPI. They argued that the law gives the governor more power than the independently elected state superintendent, contrary to the court’s 1996 ruling.
The 1996 ruling arose from a case challenging then-Gov. Tommy Thompson’s attempt to transfer powers from DPI into a new Department of Education under the control of the governor. At the time, the court unanimously ruled that the state superintendent is in charge of education policy in Wisconsin and that the governor and Legislature can’t give “equal or superior authority” to anyone else.
Those supporting the governor’s position and opposing Evers include School Choice Wisconsin, a group that advocates for taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools, and the state chamber of commerce.
Gableman was joined in the majority ruling by Justices David Prosser, Anne Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson. Those dissenting were Chief Justice Pat Roggensack and justices Annette Ziegler and Rebecca Bradley.
The dissenting justices argued that those challenging the law had not proven that it was unconstitutional.
In the almost 4,000 years since Hammurabi codified Babylonian law, Western cultures have held judicial fairness and impartiality as an ideal. To be sure, it’s an ideal sometimes honored more in the breach than in the keeping, but it’s an unchanging ideal nonetheless.
Today, in Wisconsin, that ideal is under attack, from enemies both old and new.
Wisconsin elects its judges and elections mean donations and donations mean influence. The more money that flows into a judge’s coffers, the greater the chances that fairness and impartiality are at risk.
It’s critical for Wisconsin to reconsider the way judges are selected. The American Bar Association has advocated for merit selection since 1937. Merit selection, which is used in two-thirds of the states, relies on neutral experts and nonpartisan boards to select a qualified pool of candidates from which the governor can choose. In some states, approval of the senate also is required.
Under the system, judges must stand for retention after a determined number of years. The public is asked to vote only on whether to keep them. There are no competitive elections.
Alternately, the Wisconsin Bar Association has proposed a constitutional amendment that would limit justices to a single, 16-year term. According to WAB, the term limits would “engender greater public confidence in the court’s ability to pursue justice independently of political influence.”
We don’t think term limits are strong enough to solve the problem. Only merit selection upholds the ideal of blind justice.
Wisconsin’s already corrupt system has been further damaged by two high court rulings, one from Washington and the other from Madison.
In its Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ratcheted up brazen judicial bribery by removing limits on how much donors can contribute secretly to PACs to influence elections.
In Wisconsin, the problem is compounded by a state Supreme Court decision that campaigns can coordinate election strategies directly with dark money groups. The story of how such coordination became legal demonstrates how this kind of corruption works.
Several dark money groups were charged in a state “John Doe” case with illegal coordination during Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign. The same groups had given $8 million to four of the conservative justices on the bench.
So, when the case arrived at the high court, its outcome was a foregone conclusion. But the paid-for justices went further than anyone imagined they would. They not only dismissed the case against their donor, but ignored all legal precedent and tossed out the law banning such coordination. Then they ordered the evidence to be destroyed.
Why weren’t those justices recused from a case in which there was such a blatant conflict of interest? Just because, they said.
On April 5, with nearly four times the anonymous cash spent for her as for her opponent, Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley won a 10-year term on the high court. Now the dark money groups have five-two control over justice in the state.
Money over merit: A majority of area lawyers said Bradley was unqualified. She’d never served on a judicial bench until 2012, when Scott Walker appointed her to a Milwaukee Circuit Court position. Last fall, following the death of Justice Patrick Crooks, Walker elevated her to the high court to finish out Crooks’ term, making her the incumbent in the election.
WiG is not alone in calling for reform. On April 5, 11 diverse towns in Wisconsin held referenda asking whether to amend the Constitution to undo Citizens United by declaring that money is not speech. Between 74 and 88 percent of voters said yes. That brought the total number of Wisconsin communities who’ve voted to nix Citizens United to 72. Forty-four percent of the state’s citizens live in those jurisdictions.
We need Citizens United to be thrown on the trash heap of history, and we must stop electing justices and appoint them on merit. Fair and impartial justice must not be negotiable.
In the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, outside groups supporting Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley outspent those supporting Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg almost 4 to 1.
All told, outside groups for Bradley spent about $2,714,000 while those for Kloppenburg spent about $710,000. That’s a ratio of 3.8 to 1.
Kloppenburg lost her bid on Tuesday for a 10-year seat on the high court to Bradley.
Topping the list of outside spenders was the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, a conservative Madison-based group formed late last year that doled out an estimated $2.6 million on four television ads and a radio ad to support Bradley. Two of the broadcast ads — audio here and video on YouTube — praised Bradley and the other ads — here, here,* and here* — attacked Kloppenburg for decisions in three cases before the appeals court she sits on.
The Alliance is an issue ad group, which means that it can secretly raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to spend on its outside electioneering activities.
Behind the Alliance was the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which spent an estimated $710,000 on issue ads and independent expenditures to support Kloppenburg. Greater Wisconsin, which was formed in 2004 to mostly support Democratic candidates for statewide office and the legislature, doled out an estimated $600,000 through its issue ad arm to air a television ad — here —that attacked Bradley for controversial opinion columns she did as a college student. In addition, Greater Wisconsin’s corporation said in paperwork filed with the state that it would spend about $107,300 on online advertising against Bradley.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, which was created in 2002 to support GOP candidates for the legislative offices throughout the country, registered a committee with the state that spent about $114,000 on a 60-second radio ad — here — and mailings to support Bradley. The RSLC’s Judicial Fairness Initiative was formed last fall to support conservative judicial candidates around the country.
Finally, WEAC Region 3 PAC, a political action committee affiliated with the Wisconsin Education Association Council which is the state’s largest teachers union, spent about $2,400 on mailings to support Kloppenburg.
*When clicking on this link you may prompted to open a file in your default media player. If so, click “OK.” Once the complete video has been downloaded it will automatically play.
A slew of negative headlines about Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Rebecca Bradley, including her college writings that slammed gays, feminists and abortion rights, hasn’t damaged her campaign for a 10-year term, according to an opinion poll released Wednesday.
The numbers from Marquette Law School show Bradley has support from 41 percent of likely voters, a slim advantage over Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, who’s at 36 percent.
The last survey, taken in February before the negative news came out about Bradley, showed she had 37 percent support to Kloppenburg’s 36 percent. Since then, Bradley’s campaign has fought back against the writings along with questions of whether she cheated on her husband and the news that she left the high court bench during oral arguments to give a speech to a business group.
The Marquette Law School Poll on the judicial race was conducted Thursday through Monday, sampling 957 likely voters who said by cellphone or landline that they’re certain to cast a ballot in the high court race. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
The survey doesn’t indicate why the campaign’s troubles haven’t hurt Bradley, but it could be a combination of heavy spending on advertising, conservative support and as poll director Charles Franklin said, getting “overshadowed by other contests.”
Wisconsin’s presidential primary contest, which is next week, has taken the attention away from the high court race, especially as candidates from both parties have crisscrossed the state to rally support.
Bradley’s campaign, meanwhile, has dealt with her troubles aggressively. She apologized repeatedly for the college writings, denied having had an affair and deflected the criticism over leaving the bench as overblown. Still, about 18 percent of respondents were undecided, and more than a third of likely voters say they don’t know enough about either candidate to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion.
In the race, the conservative Wisconsin Alliance for Reform has spent about $1.2 million on months of TV ads supporting Bradley, according to the most recent analysis of Federal Communications Commission records by campaign watchdog group Justice at Stake. As of Thursday, Bradley’s campaign booked about $196,000 worth of TV time.
On the other side, the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee had booked about $265,000 worth of pro-Kloppenburg ads, and her campaign had purchased about $223,000 worth of TV time.
Kloppenburg has repeatedly noted that Gov. Scott Walker has appointed Bradley to three judgeships in recent years, including her spot on the high court bench. But those efforts may not be working as intended.
Walker’s approval numbers have climbed steadily to 43 percent from a low of 37 percent last fall — about the time he ended his presidential bid. And among likely Republican presidential primary voters, his favorability stands at 80 percent. Bradley has almost 70 percent support from that same group.
Bradley has “a notable advantage” but “not a massive advantage,” Franklin said.
“There’s still a decent amount of uncertainty,” Franklin said, “about how these last — goodness, what are we down to? Six days? — are gonna shape up.”
The poll’s full sample, which covered a wide range of political topics, includes 1,405 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley declined to say this week whether she would recuse herself from an abortion case in light of comments she made as a college student equating abortion to the Holocaust.
A moderator asked Bradley during a debate with opponent JoAnne Kloppenburg whether she would remove herself from an abortion case if one came before her because of her comments. Bradley responded by saying she makes recusal decisions on a case by case basis.
Bradley said that if she had any question in her mind about her ability to be impartial, she would recuse herself. She added, though, that justices are expected to set aside their political stances and apply the law as written.
Bradley on abortion
A liberal group, One Wisconsin Now, revealed this month that Bradley wrote letters and columns for her college newspaper in 1992 calling gay people “queers,” saying she had no sympathy for AIDS sufferers and calling abortion a holocaust of children. Bradley has apologized and said her views have since changed.
Kloppenburg was asked during the debate at the Madison Rotary Club whether she would recuse herself from potential cases involving conservative groups Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Alliance for Reform.
Kloppenburg, an appellate judge, remained on a case involving Club for Growth in 2014 even though the group had spent against her during her failed 2011 Supreme Court bid.
The Club for Growth had sued to halt an investigation into whether Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups, including the conservative group. Kloppenburg and two other judges on the 4th District Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit. The Supreme Court later took the case and halted the probe last year. Kloppenburg told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board this month that she didn’t believe she had to recuse herself because the Club for Growth had spent money against her, not for her, and therefore no perception of quid pro quo existed.
Alliance for Reform, meanwhile, has bankrolled a number of anti-Kloppenburg ads.
Kloppenburg said Wisconsin’s rules for judicial recusal are weak because they essentially leave it up to each individual judge to decide for themselves whether he or she can act impartially. If she was faced with cases involving Club for Growth or Alliance for Reform, she said she would look at the timing and how far removed her connections with the groups are in time and the amount of expenditures involved.
Kloppenburg also said she supports using public dollars to support Supreme Court candidates’ campaigns, saying that would help reduce the influence of third parties running ads. Bradley countered such a system would leave candidates with less funding and give third parties a stronger voice in races.
Kloppenburg kept chipping away at Bradley’s qualifications, noting that Walker has appointed her to every judicial position she’s held, including the Supreme Court. Bradley said Kloppenburg was being hypocritical since she applied for judicial appointments from former Gov. Jim Doyle and President Barack Obama.
The debate was the fourth between Bradley and Kloppenburg in the last nine days. They will square off in the April 5 general election for a 10-year term on the high court.
We support attorney Jean Kies campaign to replace Judge Michelle Ackerman Havas on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. She’s experienced, respected and not involved in partisan politics.
Gov. Scott Walker appointed Havas to the judicial position at stake — the same one he used to jumpstart the career of now Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley.
Bradley and Havas are friends who represent the same political and ideological interests — and have the same benefactors.
But Havas doesn’t appear as savvy as Bradley. While Bradley disavows that the GOP and its Koch-backedPACs will hold any sway over her judicial decisions, Havas seemed to acknowledge the role she could play on the court for the state’s executive branch.
At a Republican fundraiser for Bradley, Havas spoke after high-ranking Wisconsin party officials finished patting themselves on the back over the successes of Walker and his Legislature during the last session.
“I want to thank all the leadership here who has helped me and is helping me to get my name out,” Havas said, according to a transcript of the speech. “You all do such wonderful work, and obviously everything that is happening in the executive branch is all very important.”
Those words were reminiscent of Judge David Prosser’s vow in 2012 that he could be counted on to support Walker. It was inappropriate then, and it is now.
Kies, on the other hand, says she’s maintained political independence in anticipation of someday rising to the bench. She’s beholden to no one, as demonstrated by her bipartisan endorsements.
We strongly support Kies in this race, not only for her understanding that the judiciary is by necessity apolitical, but also for the scope of her legal experience.
She’s practiced law under her “own shingle,” as she puts it, rather than at a large law firm. As a result, she’s worked 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.
Kies’ legal partner is her husband Lewis Wasserman. He says that she brings more to her cases than knowledge, skill and fairness. He contends that she has the right temperament — a gift for making defendants and plaintiffs alike feel satisfied with the way their cases have been handled.
Kies deserves the opportunity to prove what she can do on the bench. We urge readers to vote for her on April 5.
Assembly Democrats are stepping up their attacks on Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley over her inflammatory writings about LGBT people and feminists.
The writings were uncovered by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now just weeks before she faces challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg at the polls on April 5 to retain her interim position on the state’s highest court. She was appointed to the position by Gov. Scott Walker, who’s named her to all the judicial positions she’s ever held, beginning in 2012.
Last week, state Reps. Lisa Subeck and Chris Taylor called upon Bradley to resign over her writings blaming victims of sexual assault and equating the use of birth control with murder.
“Rebecca Bradley’s extreme and hate-filled beliefs make her unfit to serve on our state’s highest court, Rep. Subeck said in a statement. “From calling members of the LGBTQ community ‘degenerates’ and ‘queers’ to believing that women play a role in date rape, this is a person who has extreme biases, unacceptable in a justice who is supposed to embrace fairness and neutrality.’
For 11 days, Taylor tweeted Bradley asking for an apology to rape and incest victims. Bradley has yet to respond, according to Taylor’s office.
“Justice Bradley believes that pharmacists should be able to impose their personal beliefs on women by refusing to fill birth control prescriptions,” Taylor said in the same statement. “It is frightening to consider Justice Bradley inserting her extreme beliefs into what should be an independent and fair state Supreme Court. … “Justice Rebecca Bradley’s beliefs are dangerous to the health and lives of Wisconsin women.”
Also last week, Rep. Mark Spreitzer announced his support for an effort by Fair Wisconsin and LGBT leaders, including U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, to expose the funders of the right-wing PAC Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, which is running commercials for Bradley. The group’s website was registered by Lorri Pickens, who led the campaign against marriage equality in 2006.
WFA has “poured $2 million into ads for Rebecca Bradley’s campaign to fill the Wisconsin Supreme Court vacancy and plans to spend at least $3 million before the April 5 election,” according to a statement from Spreitzer’s office.
“As an LGBT leader and strong supporter of equality, I have been deeply disturbed by the vitriolic anti-gay statements that Rebecca Bradley has made,” Spreitzer said in a statement from his office. “It is even more disturbing to learn that she is benefiting from millions of dollars in campaign spending from a group with ties to leading anti-equality activists and the anti-LGBT group Wisconsin Family Action. During Sunshine Week in Wisconsin, I wholeheartedly support Fair Wisconsin’s efforts to expose the funders of this group, as transparency is the only way to root out the dark money that supports anti-equality rhetoric.”
“I’d like to think many of the people funding Rebecca Bradley’s campaign don’t support her homophobic statements, but if they are contributing to the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, I think their money will speak for itself,” Spreitzer added. “Our now-gutted campaign finance laws allow these secret groups to dump millions into our elections without disclosing who they really are. …. Any individual, business or organization that donates to this group should be exposed so the public knows where they stand and what kind of rhetoric they are funding.”
The wages of Rebecca Bradley’s “sins” have caught up with her in a big way. But will they lead to the death of her career — and will they further corrode the reputation of her political handler, Gov. Scott Walker?
Wisconsinites will get part of the answer on April 5, when Bradley, currently serving as an interim Supreme Court justice, faces her infinitely more qualified challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg at the polls for a full 10-year term on the bench.
Foremost among Bradley’s “sins” are the viscerally hateful anti-gay columns she penned as a student at Marquette University about gays, people with AIDS, Democrats, feminists and every other group singled out by the extreme right during the “culture wars” of the early 1990s.
She claims to have changed her views about gays in the ensuing 20-plus years. Supporting that claim, Bradley sought out WiG’s endorsement for her first and only judicial election. During our interview with her, she seemed at ease, quite likeable and sincere in her support for LGBT rights.
But on every other far-right issue, Bradley has remained immovable, which suggests that her support for LGBT individuals comes with unspoken qualifiers. In light of our interview, for instance, we were surprised to learn recently that she sits on the governing board of the St. Thomas Moore Lawyers Society. That organization pushes for “religious rights” of the kind that involve trampling on other people’s rights in the name of religion, such as allowing people who own public accommodations to deny services to gays and lesbians if they feel to do so would violate their beliefs.
The only evidence Bradley has offered of her more inclusive adult sensibilities seems either self-serving or scandalous. She appeared at a Fair Wisconsin fundraiser, which proves she’s willing to rub elbows with LGBT people to further her electoral career. She says she’d perform a same-sex wedding, if asked; but after four years on the bench she’s never been asked, which indicates she doesn’t know many gay and lesbian people very well, at least not the marrying kind.
Ironically, the most convincing evidence that Bradley’s strict Roman Catholic code of sexual morality has evolved comes from her personal life: She was divorced after eight years of marriage, had an extramarital affair and had what sounds like a “friend with benefits” relationship with her former boss after they stopped dating “exclusively.” She’s been accused of breaching ethical legal standards by representing that boss in a custody battle with his ex-wife, despite the objection of the ex-wife and her lawyer. Her description of that episode suggests a measure of petty vindictiveness between the two women — a scenario that’s troubling because she took the personal soap opera into a court of law.
Otherwise, Bradley has maintained her fundamentalist Catholic view on choice — and even contraception. In 2002, she equated abortion with murder and compared it to slavery and the Holocaust. In 2006, she penned a column defending a pharmacist’s right to deny contraception as an act of religious conscience. Defying scientific consensus, she described certain contraceptives as abortifacients, meaning they cause miscarriages. That’s a view that elevates Catholic doctrine above science.
Friends and allies
The most telling indicator of Bradley’s current state of mind is the company she keeps, and that should trouble voters for a variety of reasons. Her life is peopled with the same kinds of organizations and individuals with whom she was linked in the early 1990s.
Bradley has not earned her judicial career through her stellar educational background, legal writings, major cases or her legal career — which in part has consisted of defending doctors from malpractice claims and corporations from liability suits. She’s won the kind of honors that glossy magazines sell to advertisers, and she received the 2010 Women in Law Award from the Wisconsin Law Journal. But she did not have a Supreme Court-level legal profile outside of religious- and corporate-right circles.
Since 2012 Bradley has been hand-groomed for the bench by Walker, who’s appointed her to every judicial position she’s held during the ensuing four-year period. It’s easy to imagine that Walker was mentoring Bradley expressly for the state’s highest court.
If that’s true, it must have felt like a windfall for Walker when Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks dropped dead just months after Walker had elevated Bradley to an appeals court position. The tragedy gave Walker the chance to anoint his disciple as an interim justice on the high court.
Now, just a few months later, she can run as an incumbent for Crooks’ expired 10-year term.
During Crooks’ tenure, the Wisconsin Supreme Court leaned conservative by a 5–2 margin. But while Crooks ruled with his right-wing judicial colleagues 80 percent of the time, Bradley likely can be counted on as reliably as Walker’s other slavish supporters on the bench. She certainly feels as if she can count on him: She registered the domain name justicebradley.com before she’d even applied for the interim position — possibly before Crooks’ body was interned.
Bradley’s fierce partisanship and lack of political independence should concern voters. The Republican Party is virtually handling her campaign, which is being heavily funded by special-interest corporate groups. It’s safe to say that she’s deeply in the pocket of those corporations, which are bent on rolling back clean air and water regulations, getting rid of unions and allowing for endless political spending. She’s also served as president of the Milwaukee Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society, a group whose mission could have been lifted from Charles and David Koch’s greediest dreams.
The combination of Bradley’s over-the-top anti-gay writings and her fierce loyalty to the Republican Party and its moneyed special interests have prompted protests against her during the final weeks of the campaign.
We Are Wisconsin has either staged or planned demonstrations outside of every Supreme Court candidate debate. Protesters have carried signs printed with some of Bradley’s most offensive writings. But group member Saul Owen said it’s the totality of Bradley’s record — the unseemly partisanship, the big-money support and the political opportunism as well as the hate rhetoric — that has local leaders and advocates alarmed, not only by Bradley’s candidacy but about the degradation of justice in Wisconsin that it embodies.
“She can’t be trusted to hold everyone equally under the eyes of the law,” Newton said.
We Are Wisconsin has called upon Bradley to pull out of the race, charging that her campaign has tainted even further the Supreme Court’s already heavily strained credibility.
We Are Wisconsin plans to hold its next demonstration on Friday, March 18, outside a debate hosted by Wisconsin Public Television.
Bradley and Kloppenburg were virtually tied in the most recent poll, which was taken in February. That was before the indefatigable Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, uncovered and shared Bradley’s explosive hate writings from the Marquette Tribune. It also was before a misleading but effective anti-Kloppenburg television ad hit the airwaves, along with other contorted and inflammatory advertising.
The ads were paid for by an astroturf group misleadingly named Wisconsin Alliance for Reform. The group formed last October to run ads attacking former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. The group’s Web domain reportedly was purchased by Lorri Pickens, whose husband has connections to Bemis, a company owned by the family that Ron Johnson married into. The company remains one of Johnson’s company’s best customers.
For a long time, Pickens has been associated, either directly or indirectly, with right-wing corporate PACs such as the Koch-brothers-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. She has also worked with Julaine Appling’s anti-gay Wisconsin Family Action, and she managed Vote Yes for Marriage, the group that supported the 2006 state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage and later sought to overturn the state’s domestic partnership registry. (WFA is not making an endorsement in the Supreme Court race.)
That connection alone argues against Bradley’s self-proclaimed new worldview. And, on close inspection, her professional life has been lived in a closed loop with some of the same right-wing evangelicals and corporate-owned political hacks with whom she bonded during her years as a shock columnist at the Marquette Tribune, writing about how women play a role in their own rape.
Walker claims he had no knowledge of Rebecca Bradley’s writings when he appointed her as an interim justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Bradley didn’t disclose the college columns in her applications for judicial appointments. Where the forms asked for academic and extracurricular activities, she listed her time as a Marquette University student senator and as editor of the student newspaper at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School.
But Walker’s disavowal is hard for anyone informed about his history with Bradley to believe.
Both were student Republicans whose time at Marquette overlapped, and both wrote conservative commentaries for the Marquette Tribune. Today, the two travel in the same corporate-right Republican circles, and they’re practically neighbors. Their Wauwatosa homes sit around the corner from each other, less than half a mile apart.
Bradley’s most controversial writings, including the column in which she called gay people “queers” and “degenerates” who deserved to die of AIDS, were published two years after Walker dropped out of college. But they had a common acquaintance — Jim Villa, one of Walker’s longest and most trusted advisers. Villa served as Walker’s chief of staff for five years when the governor was Milwaukee County executive, and he also served as an informal adviser during Walker’s brief presidential run last year.
Villa was a target during the John Doe investigation into possible illegal political activities among Walker’s Milwaukee County staff. Investigators, who suspected Villa of misconduct in public office and solicitation of public employees to commit misconduct, applied for a search warrant of Villa’s home and office.
Villa was not charged and went on to receive a cushy appointment from Walker in 2014 as the UW System’s vice president of university relations. Villa, who was president of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin at the time, had no discernible qualifications for the job, which came with a salary of $178,000. Critics of Walker’s civil service overhaul have cited Villa’s hiring as a blatant example of the cronyism they say will become the new norm in state hiring decisions under the revamped law.
Ross contends that it’s inconceivable Villa wouldn’t have mentioned the columns to Walker, given their inflammatory nature and the pair’s decades-long relationship.
But Villa denied that allegation to The Associated Press, saying, “Not only did I not speak to him about it, I didn’t remember those writings.”
That statement rings especially false because Villa’s gay sexual orientation, a well-known secret in GOP political circles, would make Bradley’s diatribes against “homosexuals” hard to forget — especially given their shocking level of malice: “The homosexuals and drug addicts who do essentially kill themselves and others through their own behavior deservedly receive none of my sympathy,” Bradley wrote on Feb. 28, 1992, in a statement that typifies the aggressive style of her writings at the time.
For all the public knows, it might have been Villa’s coming out to his friend Bradley that led to her changing attitude toward LGBT people. But Villa declined to return a phone message left by WiG seeking clarification.
A lose-lose situation?
There’s a reason Walker has refused to say whether he would have appointed Bradley if he’d known of her public writing in advance: If he replied in the affirmative, he’d run the risk of alienating all but the right-wing evangelists who form the hard core of Republican loyalists. On the other hand, if Walker condemned Bradley’s unseemly written tirades, then he might suffer a backlash from the same voters.
Perhaps that’s why Bradley’s apologies for her past writings and her insistence that she has changed have struck so many people as hollow. If she backtracks on the vitriol that would inspire homophobes to the polls to support her in droves, she’s undermining her own election effort.
Bradley’s attempts to temper her past writings already have some of her most bigoted supporters up in arms.
On Charlie Sykes’ online blog Right Wisconsin, one anti-gay follower wrote: “If Bradley backs down here, she loses my vote. She needs to show some spine. The majority of voters in April will be older and whiter. That demographic does not thing (sic) gays are equal to straights.
Another wrote (quoted verbatim): “If they stay within their sex preference and not frakkin cheat, that gene goes away. Benefit for marriage is for those who can reproduce within their sex preference. BY the way, she was correct back then, gays, bisexuals and drug users spread HIV and cost millions in healthcare costs. Go ride a seatless bike.”
Bradley surely does not want to be associated with that kind of ignorance, but without such supporters she might very well lose the race, despite the millions that corporate special interests will likely spend on her.
The same holds true for Walker. His political fate might now be intertwined with his Frankenstein’s monster. With approval numbers that are under water, Walker cannot afford to be associated with either the bigoted rage surrounding his surrogate’s image or a repudiation of that rage.
This time, whatever the outcome of the Supreme Court race, Walker seems to have manipulated himself into a corner. After all the failed attempts he’s made to keep his strategic moves in the dark, he still hasn’t learned that he’s being watched by people like Ross and reported on by all of the state’s responsible media.