On Feb. 20, Wisconsin voters will find three candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court on their primary ballots. One of them will succeed Justice Michael Gableman, who’s opted not to run for a second 10-year term. He’s part of a 5-2 conservative majority on the court.
The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary will square off in the April 3 general election.
Two of the candidates are acceptable to progressive voters, while the third is considered a rubber stamp for Scott Walker and the state’s Republican leadership.
Candidate Michael Screnock was appointed to the Sauk County Circuit Court by Walker in 2015, and the same big-money groups behind the state’s Republican leaders — as well as the Supreme Court’s majority — are ginning up to elect him. He recently benefited from a six-figure ad paid for by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
Screnock has twice been arrested for his behavior while participating in anti-abortion protests.
The other two candidates, Madison attorney Tim Burns and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet, don’t stand far apart on the issues. Both have backing from prominent Democrats — Burns from officials in Madison, and Dallet from Milwaukeeans.
Despite sharing a lot of the same ideology, the two candidates have butted heads on the role of politics in the campaign and the issue of experience. There was a lot of contention between them on display at a recent forum sponsored by the Milwaukee Bar Association.
Regarding politics, Burns has taken heat from Dallet and others for conducting what critics call a political campaign. Judicial campaigns are officially “nonpartisan,” and candidates are expected to avoid taking a stance on issues that could arise in cases that might come before them.
But Burns says pretending to have no opinions is an obvious sham that keeps liberals from winning. For one thing, he says, the political leanings of judicial candidates are always easy to discern by looking at their supporters — and their histories.
The ideal of blind justice has been so compromised by politically motivated decisions, Burns says, that candidates should be forthright in expressing their views while campaigning. He believes honesty injects more trust into judicial campaigns.
Dallet, however, says Burns has crossed the line by signaling how he would rule on some cases. In tweets, he has voiced strong support for unions, heavily criticized Donald Trump and railed against the state’s voter ID laws.
But in a recent political ad, Dallet took clear aim at Trump herself.
Burns says progressives are losing judicial races because they’re not voicing their values, while conservative candidates are winning by stressing theirs.
Burns says he represents a new kind of candidate, one who’s breaking away from what he calls “the résumé races” that judicial candidates usually run.
Dallet says Burns has to rely on politics in his campaign. “I guess that’s what you have to do when you don’t have experience to talk about,” she says.
Burns says he entered the judicial race because he was “very disturbed about the direction of the country.” He’s worried, he says, about what the future holds for his three children, who were adopted from China.
As an attorney, Burns has gained national prominence fighting large insurance companies on behalf of consumers.
He says his legal and life experiences have prepared him well to serve on the Supreme Court. His grandparents were Mississippi sharecroppers “who didn’t finish school because of poverty.” Thus, he understands hardship, he says.
Burns also says he’s “the only (candidate) with experience working on the appellate court.” He served an internship on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Burns is on the board of the American Constitution Society, which he describes as “the largest progressive lawyer organization in the country.”
Defending himself against charges that he lacks experience, Burns says many of history’s greatest judges, including Louis Brandeis and Earl Warren, never served as judges before they were appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
His supporters include many progressive leaders from Madison, such as U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and former Supreme Court candidates Ed Fallone and Joanne Kloppenburg. Burns also is backed by Our Revolution, a grass-roots group that arose out of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. He says that support will make up for his tepid fundraising.
At the end of 2017, Burns had raised about $136,000 and had $107,000 on hand.
Dallet’s fundraising has been more robust. She raised nearly $500,000 last year, including $200,000 she donated to her campaign.
Like Burns, she says she was thinking of the future when entering the race. As a Jewish woman with three daughters, she’s especially alarmed by the growing “acceptance” of the white supremacy movement.
“I’m running because our civil rights and our values are under attack every day, tweet by tweet,” Dallet says. “We’ve got a broken Supreme Court. We need someone with the values and experience to repair it. I’ve been a judge for almost a decade and a prosecutor for a decade before that.”
The most experienced of the three candidates, she takes issue with Burns on the importance of experience.
“Burns has very little criminal justice experience,” she explains. “Experience matters. That’s what the voters care about.
Dallet says one of her proudest moments as a judge came when Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage was overturned. She remembers racing to the Milwaukee County Courthouse to officiate same-sex marriages.
Burns has attacked Dallet for allegedly making a campaign donation to conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack. Dallet denies that’s what happened. It was Roggensack, she says, who contributed to one of her campaigns, prompted by a friendship between her mother and someone in Dallet’s circle.
Dallet also faces criticism from Burns over some of her rulings, while she has attacked him for not releasing a list of clients he’s represented.
Dallet has strong support from progressive leaders in Milwaukee. She’s been endorsed by 175 judges throughout the state, and she has nearly the same number of endorsements from elected officials, including state Sens. Tim Carpenter, Chis Larson and LaToya Johnson, as well as state Reps. Evan Goyke, Christine Sinicki and Jon Richards.