Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly picked Rebecca Dallet to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court -- the first time in 23 years a candidate backed by liberals won an open seat on the state's highest court.
Dallet, a Milwaukee County judge, will serve for the next 10 years and be the sixth female justice on a court with the highest percentage of female justices in the nation.
State Supreme Court Results
(10-year term)All precincts reporting
With 89 percent of votes counted, Dallet led Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock’s by more than 10 percentage points, prompting state Democrats to celebrate and Republicans to pin the results on massive turnout in liberal strongholds like Dane County.
It was widely perceived as the latest sign of strength among liberal voters in Wisconsin and across the country. Gov. Scott Walker, up for re-election in November, warned of a coming “blue wave” in the state.
Dallet will replace Justice Michael Gableman, who did not seek a second term. His decision in 2015 to help decide a case involving Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which had spent millions to help elect him, was a big reason Dallet decided to seek a seat on the court.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Dallet told the Wisconsin State Journal in an interview. “I feel really great about the enthusiasm, that voters are showing up to really get out and make a change in our state, and really stand up for fair and independent courts.”
Dallet, a judge for the last 10 years, campaigned largely on changing the rules that govern when judges and Supreme Court justices should recuse themselves from cases involving top campaign donors and repeatedly criticized Gableman and the court controlled by conservatives for “doing the bidding” for special interests.
She said Tuesday one of her top priorities when she is seated on the court in August is to reopen the idea of changing the court’s recusal rules and push for a hearing on potential new rules.
With Dallet’s election, the court remains controlled by conservative justices but by a smaller 4-3 margin.
Screnock issued a statement saying he was proud of his campaign and decried outside liberal groups getting involved in the race.
“This campaign was never about me or my desire to be a Supreme Court Justice. It was about serving the people of Wisconsin by upholding the rule of law and respecting the Constitution and the separation of powers. I wish Judge Dallet well, and I sincerely hope she serves us well on the court,” he said.
Though Supreme Court races are technically nonpartisan, interest groups on both sides have traditionally played outsized roles in the races.
This year, politicians and parties got involved to a new degree. High-profile Democrats like former Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder taped phone calls for Dallet while the Republican Party of Wisconsin spent more than $400,000 on behalf of Screnock.
In a statement following Dallet’s win, Holder said, “the voters of Wisconsin took a critical first step toward a state government that better reflects their needs and interests.”
Holder’s group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and its affiliates spent more than $500,000 on behalf of Dallet. The money was spent on digital ads and voter turnout efforts.
Walker issued a warning to Republicans much like he did following a surprising win for Democrats in a state Senate race earlier this year.
“Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred -- we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November,” he tweeted, adding that outside groups like Holder’s will target him in November.
State Democrats are seeking to capitalize on Tuesday’s victory, making the case that Dallet’s win -- and the state Senate victory in January -- means they have a shot at recovering some of the losses to Republicans they’ve incurred since 2010 when Walker and Republicans took control of state government.
Dallet, 48, was a state prosecutor for 11 years and a circuit court judge for 10 before running for Supreme Court. As a prosecutor and judge, she handled thousands of cases involving child sexual assault, human trafficking, domestic violence and civil commitments for sex offenders.
Screnock spent the first part of his professional career overseeing city government in Reedsburg, Washburn and Ashland before going to law school in his late 30s. After receiving his law degree, he joined a Madison law firm defending Republicans in high-profile cases such as lawsuits over Walker’s collective bargaining measure known as Act 10 and over new legislative maps drawn in 2011.
Dallet’s win comes after an acrimonious race during which both candidates argued it was the other who could not be trusted to remain impartial and decide cases fairly.
Screnock said Dallet’s tack of promoting “values,” like clean air and clean water and fully-funded public schools and women’s access to health care, amounted to campaigning on political preferences. He and Republicans also criticized her for accepting campaign donations from attorneys who are involved in cases before her.
Meanwhile, Dallet accused Screnock of vowing to side with the National Rifle Association because of their endorsement of his campaign and said the money spent on behalf of Screnock by the WMC and the state GOP meant he would decide cases to return their favors.