Wisconsin Supreme Court race could be referendum on Walker (copy)

In this Sept. 17, 2015 file photo, Judge Rebecca Bradley speaks in Milwaukee. Gov. Scott Walker plans to appoint the conservative-backed appeals court judge to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, giving her an advantage of incumbency heading into the spring election. Two people with knowledge of Bradley’s selection confirmed the pick to The Associated Press on Friday, Oct. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Greg Moore, File)

Gov. Scott Walker announced the appointment of state Appeals Court Judge Rebecca Bradley to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday, bolstering the court's conservative majority. It's the third judicial appointment Walker has given Bradley in as many years.

Bradley will fill the seat vacated by Justice N. Patrick Crooks, who died last month shortly after announcing his retirement. Crooks was considered to be a moderate member of a court increasingly divided by partisan tensions. 

Bradley is an announced candidate for the seat, which is up for election in April. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald and appellate court judge JoAnne Kloppenburg are also running. Because there are three candidates, a primary will be held Feb. 16 before the April 5 general election. Neither Donald nor Kloppenburg applied for the appointment.

Democrats have criticized Walker's decision to appoint an announced candidate so close to the election, but Walker and Bradley dismissed suggestions that she is being given an advantage.

"I think it’s incumbent upon any governor, Democrat or Republican, to put the best person on the bench, and my view is I shouldn’t disqualify someone just because they’re an announced candidate," Walker told reporters Friday.

Walker said he uses a three-part litmus test for judicial appointments at any level: He looks for a person of integrity who understands the law and understands that the role of the judiciary is to uphold the Constitution and the laws duly enacted within it.

Walker appointed Bradley to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 2012 and the 1st District Court of Appeals this May. She was re-elected to the circuit court in 2013.

Walker declined to say Bradley has his official endorsement for the spring election, but made it clear Bradley has his support.

"I think she’s the best person to be on the Supreme Court today, and I believe next April she’ll be the best person to serve on the Supreme Court. So I’m not making a political endorsement at this time, but I wouldn’t put somebody on the bench that I didn’t think belonged there. So I think it’s pretty clear what my opinion is," Walker said.

Bradley downplayed the significance of Walker's tacit endorsement after appointing her to three positions. The governor's approval rating is 37 percent among Wisconsin voters, the lowest it's been since the Marquette University Law School poll began measuring it. 

Asked whether she thinks Walker's support would help her or hurt her, Bradley said she doesn't think voters will be influenced by it one way or the other.

"I think when the voters are evaluating judicial candidates, they look less at who’s appointed them and they look at their record on the bench, how they conduct their campaigns and what their qualifications and experiences are," Bradley said.

Partisan tensions on the court have bubbled to the surface in recent years. 

In a 2010 email, conservative Justice David Prosser called the liberal then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a "bitch," and in 2011, Prosser allegedly wrapped his hands around liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley's neck during an argument. 

Political disagreements surfaced again this year when the Legislature passed a law changing how the chief justice is selected. Abrahamson was ousted, and Patience Roggensack was selected as chief justice by the court's conservative majority.

Bradley said Friday she's looking forward to working with all of her soon-to-be colleagues.  

The liberal group One Wisconsin Now argued that she'll be too focused on campaigning to do her job effectively.

"Gov. Walker spent nearly every waking moment after his 2014 gubernatorial election until the unceremonious demise of his presidential campaign running for another office when he was supposed to be doing his job as governor," OWN executive director Scot Ross said in a statement. "So it’s no surprise he’s appointing someone to fill Justice Crooks' seat who’ll be focused on campaigning for her election instead of doing her job on the court."

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said Walker should have allowed voters to decide on the next justice. But Walker and Roggensack both argued the vacancy should be filled now, since there is business on the court's docket between now and April.

"The governor making this appointment so close to the election does not serve the public well but is in line with Republicans’ continued right-wing special interest stranglehold on our state," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, in a statement.

Walker said he waited to start the appointment process until after Crooks' funeral out of respect to Crooks' family, but moved quickly because it was his duty to fill the vacancy.

Madison attorney Claude Covelli and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jim Troupis were the other two applicants for the position. 

Bradley, 44, attended Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin Law School. In private practice, she represented physicians in malpractice lawsuits and defended individuals and businesses in product liability and personal injury litigation and appeals, and worked with commercial, information technology and intellectual property litigation and transactions.

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