Wisconsin voters will elect a new justice to the Wisconsin Supreme Court 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 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 our 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 nonpartisan and ideologically impartial. As it’s constituted today, the court is anything but.
Conservative judicial candidates with strong ties to the Republican Party and its top financial donors have an easy path to the bench in Wisconsin. They’re powered by donations from the Republican Party, and 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 also have 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 Supreme Court races.
But it’s not just the money that boosts right-wing candidates. It’s also turnout.
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 workday.
Unfortunately, Democrats and progressives often don’t have the same zeal or the same ability to vote. But 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, he 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: Screnock helped Republicans gerrymander Wisconsin’s political map so that it’s all but impossible for them 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 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 selfinterested wealthy donors whose only goal in donating is to get richer.
Dallet has been endorsed by more than 200 current and former judges in the state. And they’re endorsing her because, unlike her opponent, she’s 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 majority of current justices 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 majority did for Walker in one of the John Doe rulings. Most of them had taken millions of dollars from the defendants, but they declined to recuse themselves from the case.
Screnock will not say whether he’d recuse himself under similar conditions.
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 said it was up to them to decide what cases they would hear.
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.
WiG endorses Dallet for justice.