In less than two weeks, Wisconsinites can vote in the primary for the Wisconsin Supreme Court justice race to replace Justice Michael Gableman.
Discussion on the technically nonpartisan race has zeroed in on the judges' personal political beliefs, and it looks like that’s where the focus will stay until election day.
On a recent episode of Sunday political talk show “UpFront with Mike Gousha,” the three candidates were given separate interviews, and all stuck to their script: each accused the others of being partisan, while insisting they would be able to make fair judgments.
Madison attorney Tim Burns was upfront about his liberal and progressive politics, which he said would inform his job as justice but would not lead him to partial decisions. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet has shared what she terms her "values," rather than her politics. Sauk County Circuit Judge Michael Screnock, who has conservative backers, said he would be able to put aside all personal beliefs and rule on the law alone.
Burns started out by insisting that his unusual campaign strategy came from a place of strong belief.
“I just want to make clear this isn’t a campaign gimmick; it is a moral statement about our democracy,” he said.
He said the state Supreme Court shapes the economy and political system of Wisconsin through their 50 or 60 cases a year. With that amount of power, candidates should be “candid about who they are and what they believe,” he said.
Asked if he could be impartial when deciding cases, Burns said, “absolutely,” because he has not “pre-decided a concrete case.”
“Look, our values inform our view of the law and anybody that says different is just not being square with people,” Burns said.
Host Mike Gousha asked Burns how he would work with other members of the Supreme Court, given his “unconventional” campaign. The court has a 5-2 majority of conservative-leaning justices.
“I’m not there to work with them, I’m there to replace them,” he said. “I’m there to change the score.”
Dallet is a liberal-leaning judge, and has taken aim at Burns for highlighting his liberal political views throughout his campaign.
She’s said that because the race is nonpartisan, “judges should not be running with political messages, taking issues on cases before those cases come before the court.”
So critics have taken issue when they believe she’s making political statements of her own. She ran a television ad calling out President Donald Trump attacking “our civil rights and values."
“Is that not a political message?” Gousha asked her.
Dallet insisted that an “attack on our values” and rights in the country “is not a partisan issue.” She said many people in the country are upset by “government by tweet.”
“It is not a partisan issue, the feeling that we all have about those rights being attacked,” she said.
Dallet said that she hasn’t taken any positions on issues, but is “sharing my values.”
Gousha asked whether there’s a real difference between positions and values.
Dallet said there was a “big difference,” and turned to Burns, who she said “doesn’t care about the rules” and is in violation of judicial ethics rules. He could have to recuse himself for cases involving some of the issues he’s spoken out on, she said.
She said that Screnock was also running a partisan campaign. Screnock defended Act 10, is using the hashtag #wiright and his campaign advisers have worked for the Koch brothers group Americans for Prosperity. She said there was “no doubt he would fit into what is happening on that court.”
Screnock said that while Dallet has been “a little more guarded with her words,” than Burns, she’s still running on her political values and has said some “very specific things” about workers’ rights, women’s rights, clean air, clean water and full funding of education.
“I think it is hard to understand why voters should care deeply that she cares about those values and not think that they would then find their way into her directions,” he said.
Gousha pointed to Screnock’s conservative past and the fact that he was arrested twice for abortion protests. Gousha asked if Screnock could be impartial should an abortion-related case come to court, seeing that he’s so passionate about the issue.
“If I believed I could not be impartial, absolutely I would recuse myself,” Screnock said.
He added that every case that comes before him has some elements that he has “some sort of feeling about,” but it’s his job to “set that aside” as a judge.
“It really is not important what my beliefs or political values would be,” he said.