A Madison attorney on Monday announced he would run for a seat on the state’s highest court, nearly a year before voters go to the polls.
Tim Burns, an attorney with Madison’s Perkins Coie firm who specializes in insurance litigation, is seeking the seat on the state Supreme Court currently held by Justice Michael Gableman, whose first 10-year term on the court expires next spring.
Gableman did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Burns, who has little name recognition and no judicial experience, said his decision to run was fueled by the election of President Donald Trump in November, what he called a “wake-up call” for democracy.
“For the first time in my whole life I thought there was a real chance that something I care deeply about was going to fail,” he said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal.
The announcement of his campaign comes weeks after conservative-leaning Justice Annette Ziegler won re-election without an opponent April 4.
While officially nonpartisan, state Supreme Court races draw millions of dollars spent on behalf of candidates by ostensibly independent groups. Burns, who has given thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates, said he knows it will not be easy competing in that environment.
“I’m getting in early because I’m optimistic, but I’m not naive,” he said.
Burns, who lives in Middleton, is a partner at Perkins Coie and previously headed the American Bar Association’s Insurance Coverage Litigation committee. He also sits on the board of the liberal-leaning American Constitution Society and heads another American Bar Association committee focused on impartial courts and social justice.
Since 2007, he has given thousands of dollars to state and national Democratic candidates including former presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and Progressives United political action committee, the nonprofit group Democrat Russ Feingold founded after leaving the U.S. Senate, according to Federal Election Commission records.
In a statement, Burns said his candidacy was spurred in part by a vote taken two weeks ago by Gableman and four other conservative-leaning justices to reject a petition from a group of former judges to require all judges and justices to recuse themselves from cases involving big donors to their campaigns. He said the court’s decision “violates citizens’ rights to a fair and impartial court.”
An attorney hasn’t been elected to the state Supreme Court in recent history, which could make Burns’ race difficult, observers say.
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“You got a guy who hasn’t been on the bench who doesn’t have rulings to come back to haunt him,” said longtime lobbyist Brandon Scholz, who has worked on previous Supreme Court races on behalf of conservative candidates. But “if they ain’t got the robe, it’s tough,” he added. “The odds always favor the robes.”
But Jenni Dye, research director for liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, liked Burns’ chances, calling Gableman “the face of the public perception of partisanship and corruption that has caused Wisconsinites to lose faith in the court over the past decade.”
“This negative perception creates an opening for an outsider like Burns to present an alternative to the failures of the court’s conservative majority,” Dye said.
Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, called Burns “just another Madison liberal whose extreme views are out of line with Wisconsin values and don’t belong at the Supreme Court.”
Burns recently advocated for U.S. senators to vote against confirming Trump’s Supreme Court Justice pick Neil Gorsuch.
“We need judges who will make democracy work by not thwarting laws put in place to level the playing field for small farms, small- and medium-sized businesses, free markets, labor and consumers. Neil Gorsuch is not that judge,” Burns wrote in the opinion column.
Gableman’s 2008 election created the Supreme Court’s current conservative majority, which has since grown to comprise five of the seven seats. He is up for re-election after a 10-year term during which the court has become increasingly fractious and backed by outside interest groups defined by political ideologies.
Gableman also has been criticized for not recusing himself from a case that resulted in a decision to halt a secret criminal probe into whether Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated its actions with conservative outside groups. During Gableman’s 2008 election campaign, the same groups that were subjects of the probe spent millions to help elect him.
And in 2010, the court deadlocked 3-3 on whether Gableman violated the judicial code of conduct by running a potentially misleading and race-baiting campaign ad on his way to being elected in 2008, defeating Justice Louis Butler, who is black. Gableman recused himself. The other three conservative justices said the ad was distasteful but “objectively true” and protected by the First Amendment.
“There are Republicans who will say Gableman is not the strongest candidate, but he has been out on the road (gathering support and raising money),” Scholz said.
Ryan Owens, a political science professor at the UW-Madison Law School, said it’s reasonable to believe Democrats will be “fired up” in a midterm election with a Republican in the White House and as Wisconsin’s governor.
“On the other hand, Democrats have many seats to defend in the Senate, which could soak up much of the funding that might otherwise flow to this race,” Owens said. “Announcing now might give Burns more time to raise money, but it will also afford others more time to examine his record and background.”