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Two Wisconsin Supreme Court Items on April Ballot

Richard Hurd, Flickr

When you vote next month, you’ll notice two items on the ballot related to the Supreme Court. One will be the race for a seat on the court. The other – a referendum. 

Today, we examine the dynamics of the race. It pits Incumbent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley against Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley. High court elections seem to generate a lot more electricity these days, than in years past.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court plays an incredibly important role, according to former Justice Janine Geske. “Because that is the court that is the checks and balance, both on the legislature and other courts and on the governor’s office to make sure that our laws are constitutional, that they are applied fairly to all people,” Geske says.

Seven justices make up Wisconsin’s high court; they serve 10-year terms. The races are officially non-partisan, but Geske says they’ve taken on more politically ideological tones in recent times. She finds the trend disturbing.

“There’s been a real shift in judicial races from being non- partisan which they’re supposed to be, to having a lot of special interest money poured into them in attempts to get justices to vote consistently with particular interest. I think that should be of great concern to people in this state,” Geske says.

Geske says this year’s race is no exception - politics has entered. For instance, Judge Daley recently touted an endorsement from Wisconsin Right to Life, and, on his website, he has openly supported Voter ID – a divisive issue. Justice Bradley is frequently mentioned as part of the court’s liberal minority, because of how she’s voted in certain cases.

Rick Esenberg does not think it’s a big deal for judicial candidates to express political views. He’s an attorney with the conservative-leaning Institute for Law and Liberty.

“It’s not improper bias to have a view about what the law should be. Justice Scalia said in one of his decisions that if a candidate for judicial office doesn’t have a view about what the law should be, that’s not evidence of impartiality, it’s evidence of incompetence,” Esenberg says.

Esenberg says, if you look at the rundown of who donates to judicial candidates, it’s clear which way they tend to lean. The problem with potential justices stating a political allegiance, is that they don’t know what cases might come before the court, according to Ed Fallone. He’s a law professor at Marquette and unsuccessfully ran for state Supreme Court two years ago.

“There was for a time in my race, Vince Megna, who flat out declared he was a Democrat and he supported certain policy issues from the Democratic side and I think candidates have to decide for themselves whether it’s appropriate to stake out positions that might lead lawyers and parties to believe that the judge has pre-determined the issue,” Fallone says.

The Wisconsin high court has considered several politically-charged issues in recent times. Those include Wisconsin’s Voter ID law and Act 10 – Gov. Walker’s bill dismantling most public unions. UW-Madison Political Science Professor David Canon says such hot button issues have prompted special interests to begin pouring money into the races.

“They realize it’s in their interest to try to influence who’s going to sit on the Supreme Court, to have sympathetic justices who agree with their positions. It’s a much more open process now, to be more open about that partisanship than we had say, 20 years ago,” Canon says.

On Tuesday, we’ll invite candidates Bradley and Daley to state their cases to voters.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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