Justice Ann Walsh Bradley was re-elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court Tuesday, holding off an attempt to expand the court's four-member conservative majority.
Bradley defeated Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley, a self-described conservative, to win her third 10-year term on the court. Bradley was first elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1995.
A constitutional amendment to allow justices to elect the chief justice also passed. The amendment will likely result in the ouster of the court's longtime chief justice from her leadership post.
Daley had labeled Bradley an "activist" justice who rules based on personal beliefs. Bradley said Daley has shown his bias by aligning his campaign so closely with the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
In a statement, Daley congratulated Bradley but said that, "Tonight we witnessed first-hand the power of incumbency, as liberal special interests band together to protect their candidate."
He said he was looking forward to returning to the bench in Rock County.
Bradley said she chose to run again to fight against the influence of special interests on the state's highest court. She noted that Wisconsin is the second highest in the nation in special-interest spending on Supreme Court races.
"I'm not backing down because I have a vision for the judiciary in the state of Wisconsin that says 'no' to partisan politics and 'stay out' to the special interest groups in this state," Bradley said to about 75 supporters as an illuminated state Capitol building glowed in the background.
"There are those who seek to turn our courtrooms into ideological battlegrounds," she continued. "Those who want to make what party you are from more important than your dedication to the constitution and to the rule of law."
Tuesday's election was the latest skirmish in the ongoing ideological battle for control of the officially nonpartisan state Supreme Court. Pro-business groups have in recent years helped elect or re-elect a majority of the court's justices.
The seven-member court includes two justices considered by some to be liberals — Bradley and Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson — and four who are reliably conservative. One member, Justice Patrick Crooks, is sometimes a swing vote on the court.
The constitutional amendment abolishes a more than 125-year-old provision requiring that the longest-serving justice serve as the chief justice.
Passage of the amendment — which had drawn nearly $900,000 in spending for and against — means the next chief will be elected every two years by a majority vote of his or her peers for a maximum six consecutive years.
The proposal has obvious implications for Abrahamson, who has been on the court for nearly 39 years — 19 of them as chief justice presiding over an increasingly conservative court.
Republican lawmakers backing the measure, passed on party-line votes in the last two legislative sessions, said it was aimed at bringing more harmony to the fractious court. Democrats and other opponents charged that the measure was designed to weaken Abrahamson, 81, who is the court's longest serving member.
Bradley, 64, was first elected to the Supreme Court in 1995 after serving 10 years as a Marathon County Circuit Court judge. She also was an attorney in private practice and worked as a teacher at Aquinas High School in La Crosse.
Since July, Bradley reported raising about $750,000 for her campaign. Daley, who got into the race in late October, raised less than half of that, or about $290,000.
Bradley had railed against outside influence in the race, but it was her side that benefited from issue-ad spending by the left-leaning Greater Wisconsin Committee.
The group had booked contracts totaling $120,752 on anti-Daley TV ads according to Federal Communications Commissions records cited by Justice at Stake, an organization that advocates for impartial courts.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce endorsed Daley early on but did not report any spending on his behalf. The business group instead threw its money toward passage of the amendment — outspending the "no" forces 2-1.
WMC's group, Vote Yes for Democracy, reported raising $600,000 to urge support of the measure. Greater Wisconsin Committee's referendum group, Make Your Vote Count, raised $280,000 to urge voters to reject the amendment.
Daley supported the ballot measure, noting that just a handful of states use seniority to decide who serves as chief justice. Bradley opposed it.