MILWAUKEE — Three candidates for the Wisconsin Supreme Court are pursuing what’s supposed to be a nonpartisan job, but they demonstrated during a Monday forum that voters have a trio of distinct ideologies to choose from in two weeks.
There’s a conservative judge who draws inspiration from late Justice Antonin Scalia. An unabashedly liberal attorney who believes judges have an important political role in society. And a Milwaukee judge who argues she’s the only moderate in the race and that her opponents are driven by political agendas.
Regardless of that assertion from Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet, every candidate at the forum hosted by the Milwaukee Bar Association questioned another’s motives for wanting a seat in the state’s highest court.
“I know the dangers of a court legislating from the bench. Judges are not legislators,” said Sauk County Circuit Judge Michael Screnock.
Screnock, who Republican Gov. Scott Walker appointed to the bench, said Scalia is the Supreme Court justice he most admires because of his efforts “to bring the judiciary back to an understanding of an appropriate view of the courts role” in interpreting the Constitution.
The two highest vote-getters in the Feb. 20 primary will face each other on April 3 to replace conservative Justice Michael Gableman, who is not seeking a second term. The court is currently controlled 5-2 by conservatives.
Dallet suggested during her closing statement that her opponents are politicizing the race “and they’re in it for the wrong reason.”
“We need to return common sense to the bench. No more politics,” she said.
Dallet cited Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the justices she most admires “for what they’ve done for women and leveling the playing field for everyone.”
Despite presenting herself as a moderate, Dallet drew criticism from the far left contender in the race, Tim Burns, for a television ad saying President Donald Trump “attacked our civil rights and our values” as an image of him is shown with headlines about “Obamacare” and a Great Lakes restoration project. Burns noted that Dallet spoke about not politicizing the race earlier in the campaign.
“What that really shows is that Judge Dallet will do whatever it takes to get elected,” Burns said.
Burns said his favorite Supreme Court justice is Thurdgood Marshall, “because he didn’t just think about the struggle, he lived the struggle.” Burns said he believes judges do have a political role and pointed to landmark rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that were decided by one vote.
“I talked at the beginning of this campaign about killing the fairy tale that judges are not political,” he said.
The contest’s importance goes beyond deciding the next justice on Wisconsin’s high court. The election is the first statewide race in Wisconsin this year and can potentially give both parties a sense of voter sentiment heading into the fall midterm election.