Wisconsin voters will elect a new justice for the Wisconsin Supreme Court on April 3. That race may not seem high-profile, but it’s one of the most important on this year’s ballot.
Wisconsin Supreme Court justices have the power to make decisions about some of the most important issues facing the state. In 1911, the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law that created workers’ compensation. In 1926, the court granted women legal standing to sue their husbands. In 1997, the court defined the veto powers of Wisconsin governors.
The court often has the final word in cases involving the environment, education, sexual freedom, workplace conditions and hundreds of other issues that affect our daily lives — and our quality of life.
Judges are supposed to be non-partisan and ideologically impartial. The Wisconsin Supreme Court as it’s constituted today, however, is anything but.
Conservative judicial candidates with strong ties to the Republican Party and its premier financial donors have an easy path to the bench in Wisconsin. That’s because they’re powered not only by donations from the Republican Party, but also from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and political action committees bulging with dollars from the Koch brothers and other uber-rich corporate donors who have personal financial stakes in the elections. The PACs are often referred to as “dark money groups,” because their funders do not have to disclose their identities.
Democrats and ideologically affiliated groups have also spent big in recent years. But the lion’s share of dollars have gone to the Republican-allied candidate.
In the 2016 Wisconsin Supreme Court race, the victor was an inexperienced judge — Rebecca Bradley — minted by Scott Walker and given an interim seat on the high court following the sudden death of Justice N. Patrick Crooks. With unearned elevation by Walker and, of course, the GOP money machine spitting out cash, Bradley beat the far more experienced Roberta Kloppenburg. Bradley got 52.4 percent of the vote, compared with Kloppenburg’s 47.5 percent. That’s a rather low margin of victory considering that $3.5 million was spent on promoting Bradley, compared with $1.5 million on Kloppenburg.
A total of $13.2 million has been spent on the last six Wisconsin Supreme Court races.
But it’s not just the money that boosts right-wing candidates. It’s also turnout.
Judge Rebecca Dallet is by far the more experienced candidate, with over 20 years of experience in the courtroom as a judge and a prosecutor.
Judicial elections attract a sadly low number of voters to the polls, despite the outsized role that justices play in government. The most dependable voters are social conservatives from the Milwaukee suburbs. They’d brave nearly any conceivable storm or traffic fiasco to cast their votes for an anti-choice, white, Christian fundamentalist. As a whole, they have positions in life that make it easy to take off the time to vote early or on a work day.
Wealthy individuals and corporate dark money PACs have poured millions of dollars into the coffers of Republican judicial candidates. The stat…
Unfortunately, Democrats and progressives often don’t have the same zeal or the same ease of voting. The horrors that have been visited upon the state since 2011 would not exist if they did. We have reason to hope this year will be different.
In this year’s race, conservatives have a candidate who’s particularly attractive to religious-right voters, but not to voters who care about political independence and qualifications.
Michael Screnock is seriously compromised as a judicial candidate. Earlier in life, was arrested twice while participating in anti-abortion protests. He’s been accused of vowing to “uphold the platform of the NRA” in order to win that powerful group’s endorsement. PolitiFact rated that accusation as “half true.”
Like Bradley, Screnock has been groomed for the high court by Walker. Maybe it’s payback from the governor: Screnock helped with the effort to gerrymander Wisconsin’s political map so that it’s all but impossible for Republicans to lose control of the Legislature. He also helped in the legal defense of Walker’s Act 10.
Screnock’s opponent Rebecca Dallet is backed by progressive groups such as Wisconsin Working Families and Planned Parenthood, and she’s also been endorsed by the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin, AFSCME Wisconsin Council and SEIU Wisconsin State Council.
Nearly every progressive political luminary has endorsed her, including Sen. Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore.
While her backing reveals her political leanings, unlike Screnock, she does not have access to millions of dollars from self-interested wealthy donors whose only goal is to get richer.
Michael Screnock, left, owes his career to Scott Walker, but Walker owes him, too. Screnock helped to defend Act 10 and to assist with gerryma…
But the most telling difference in who’s supporting whom comes from the legal ranks. Dallet has been endorsed by hundreds of judges in the state. And they’re endorsing her because, unlike her opponent, she’s actually qualified for the job. She’s running on her 20 years of experience as a public prosecutor and a judge.
Wisconsin deserves qualified judges who are not indebted to wealthy special interests. The Wisconsin Supreme Court currently has a 5 to 2 majority of justices who were put on the bench by the one percenters. In return, the justices are expected to continue stacking the financial deck in their favor, even when it means changing campaign finance laws retroactively. That’s what the current right-wing majority did for Walker in one of the John Doe rulings. Most of those justices had taken millions of dollars from the defendants, but they declined to recuse themselves from the case.
Fifty-four retired Wisconsin judges asked the court to create rules for recusal when such obvious conflicts of interest exist. So did legal authorities and pundits from all over the nation.
But the Republican judges who control the court virtually scoffed at them and said they’d decline to sit on a case only when they found it appropriate.
Rebecca Dallet would be a break in the dam of special-interest money and arrogance toward corruption. She’s qualified and ready to serve justice, not to repay wealthy donors.