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Complaints of partisanship spice Wisconsin Supreme Court race

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MADISON, Wisconsin — Wisconsin Supreme Court races are officially nonpartisan affairs, but don't tell that to high court hopeful James Daley and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.

Daley, a Rock County circuit judge who is open about his conservative lean, is trying to unseat the more liberal Bradley in the April 7 election. The court's ideological tilt won't change regardless of who wins because conservatives already hold four of the seven justice slots. With little at stake in the big picture, the race has been marked mostly by each candidate insisting the other is too political to serve on the high court.

"It's hard to run campaigns about issues that justices on the Supreme Court deal with most of the time, which is matters of law. They're not a fundamental trial court," said Charles Franklin, a Marquette University law professor and expert on state politics. "(The race) reflects the contemporary world of partisan and ideological races rather than the old days of who was more qualified. Most citizens of the state will not have learned anything about the candidates."

Daley, who earned the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in Vietnam, served three terms as Rock County district attorney before then-Gov. Tommy Thompson appointed him as a judge there in 1989. He's been there ever since, handling civil, criminal and family matters.

Bradley, a former high school teacher, became a Marathon County judge in 1985. She was elected to the Supreme Court in 1995 and is completing her second 10-year term. She and Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson are generally seen as the court's two-justice liberal minority and have been openly feuding with the conservative majority for years.

Things have grown so hostile that Justice David Prosser called Abrahamson a "bitch" in a 2010 email. In 2011 Prosser wrapped his hands around Bradley's throat during a 2011 argument over when the court would release an opinion upholding Republican Gov. Scott Walker's law ending collective bargaining for most public workers. Prosser said Bradley charged him and he was defending himself.

Prosser was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. The state Judicial Commission filed an ethics complaint against Prosser but his fellow conservative justices recused themselves from the case and the matter died.

Republican legislators have placed a proposed constitutional amendment on the April 7 ballot that would have justices choose the chief justice rather than having the title automatically go to the most senior justice. That would allow the conservatives to strip Abrahamson of her title as chief and elect one of their own.

Daley has been courting Republican support since he got in the race early last year. He accepted a $7,000 in-kind contribution from the state GOP and has been speaking at Republican gatherings around the state. He has attacked Bradley for dissenting from the Walker union restriction opinion as well as an opinion upholding Wisconsin's Republican-authored voter identification law. He's also accused Bradley of sowing the rancor that has enveloped the court.

"She's an activist judge," Daley said during a candidate forum in Madison this month. "She has placed her extreme liberal political views and her politics and special interests over impartiality and common sense."

Bradley has insisted she's impartial and has accused Daley of directly injecting politics into the race, even though she is backed by labor unions and other supporters with ties to Democrats.

She also has accused Daley of flip-flopping from his stance last year that she wasn't to blame for the court's problems.

"He'll call me over and over again an activist judge," she said at the candidate forum. "When they call you an activist judge it just really means they don't agree with the bottom line of your decisions. These labels don't bother me. What bothers me is an influx of political parties in judicial races and the outsized presence of special interests."

The latest campaign finance reports show Bradley's fundraising has far out-paced Daley's. She raised $109,894 between Jan. 1 and Feb. 2 and had nearly $353,000 on hand. She's put up two television ads. Daley raised $65,000 over the same period and had $88,427 on hand. He hadn't aired ads as the campaign entered its final two weeks.

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