Bitter Clashes At Forum Between Wisconsin Supreme Court Candidates

Jan 31, 2020

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and challenger Jill Karofsky intensified their attacks against each other at a forum between the Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates on Thursday.

Incumbent Kelly, who is conservative, is fighting liberal-backed opponents — Dane County Circuit Court Judge Karofsky, and Marquette law professor Ed Fallone — for the 10-year-term.

READ: Meet The 2020 Wisconsin Supreme Court Candidates

The exchanges at the Milwaukee Bar Association got heated and bitter. Over the course of an hour, the moderator peppered the candidates with questions ranging from campaign finance reform to legal representation for low-income people. But those conversations were eclipsed by an ongoing feud over partisanship on the court.

Karofsky renewed accusations against Kelly that she raised during the candidates’ first forum in November.

“Every single time that Justice Kelly has the opportunity to rule in favor of the right-wing special interests of the Republicans, he does it every single time," she bemoaned. "And that is why people think that there is corruption on our Supreme Court.”

Karofsky referenced the court’s rulings on the lame-duck session, which stripped power from the governor, and another case that took authority from the state superintendent of schools. In both cases, the government official whose power was being checked was Democrat Tony Evers. 

Kelly called Karofsky’s allegations “scurrilous.” He said Karofsky is not only slighting him, but also his colleagues on the state’s highest court, including, by association, Chief Justice Pat Roggensack.

“Now, you owe me an apology for this disgusting slander," said Kelly. "I don't think you'll get one. Because if you didn't have slander, you wouldn't have a campaign. But you do owe Chief Justice Roggensack an apology. She's not here. She's not part of this campaign. And she did not ask to be slandered by some careless trial judge who can't even be bothered to keep her insults focused on the target.” 

Karofsky didn’t apologize and said she wouldn’t be bullied by Kelly.

Fallone chastised the other two candidates for their bickering.

“There is no voter in Wisconsin who wants to see this on our state Supreme Court," he said. "There is no voter in Wisconsin who is happy with a state Supreme Court that is divided into camps and arguing with each other.”

Fallone emphasized that if elected, he’d be the first Latino on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

When they weren’t going after each other, the candidates weighed in on topics like recusal. Fallone said there needs to be tougher rules. 

"When a party leaves the courtroom having lost the case, they shouldn't have a question in their mind whether they lost on the merits or whether they lost because the opposing party or opposing counsel had made campaign contributions to the judge. That kind of doubt is toxic to our system," contended Fallone.

Karofsky agreed.

"We need to have a bright line rule. It's the only thing that's fair to voters, to candidates, to judges, to justices," she said. "And anyone who receives money above that line from a certain person, party, or corporation should not be able to sit on that case." 

But Kelly was more reticent.

"I'm always open to a reform of our Supreme Court rules, and in addition, the way we handle recusals and campaign finance," he said. "However, I'm not going to rush willy nilly into a reform that has the potential for creating more political mischief than it solves." 

Thursday also marked the launch of the first television ad of the race — it was by Kelly. The primary will be Feb. 18. The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election on April 7.

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