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Michael Screnock

Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, a candidate for the state Supreme Court, in 2009 represented Didion Milling against allegations of violations of federal environmental rules. In 2017, the company's corn milling facility in Cambria exploded, killing five.

In previous work as a lawyer, Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock helped businesses challenge state-imposed regulations they considered burdensome and unnecessary, and defended them against allegations of environmental pollution.

That work has drawn criticism from liberal and conservation groups as Screnock seeks a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court.

Screnock said his work as a paid advocate should not be construed as a clue as to how he would rule on such cases as a judge, and that the experience provided him with needed knowledge to decide such cases.

Screnock was one of two attorneys from Michael Best & Friedrich who defended Johnson Creek-based Didion Milling in 2009 against lawsuits alleging the company had repeatedly violated air and water pollution regulations. To resolve the suits, Didion agreed to pay the state more than $1 million, provide funding for environmental improvement projects in Columbia County and to no longer discharge water.

The air violations related to inadequate measures to prevent dust from escaping its Cambria corn-processing plant and polluting the air outside. The water violations concerned pollution from Didion’s ethanol operation.

Last year, the company was fined $1.8 million by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration after its plant in Cambria exploded, killing five. OSHA fined the company for failing to control highly combustible grain dust that leaked from enclosures and accumulated throughout the plant, and the company didn’t maintain equipment to prevent heat or sparks that can ignite the dust.

In another case, Screnock defended the large Casco-based Kinnard Farms dairy operation against a lawsuit brought by environmental advocacy groups after private wells in the area tested positive for groundwater contaminants.

Screnock successfully defended another dairy farm in Grand Marsh in challenging the state Department of Natural Resources’ authority to require the dairy producer to install equipment to monitor groundwater contamination as a condition of a permit for new high-capacity wells.

Environmental issues heading

to high court

Environmental issues are rarely front and center in Supreme Court races but with high-profile cases that could make their way to the state’s highest court in coming months, Screnock’s past work as a lawyer and opponent Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet’s statements related to air- and water-quality issues have come under scrutiny.

Joanna Beilman-Dulin, research director at liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said voters should not trust a candidate who has sided with “big corporate polluters and recklessly unsafe employers.”

“Screnock worked to help a company skirt air and water pollution rules at the same time it was violating worker safety rules. This makes it all the more troubling that Screnock has benefited from (more than $1 million) the state big business lobby and still refuses to say he will step away from cases involving” Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, she said, referring to money spent on behalf of Screnock.

Ryan Billingham, spokesman for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, also characterized Screnock as a “threat to Wisconsin’s air, land and water” based on his work as an attorney and his ties to WMC.

A spokesman for WMC declined to comment on the candidates’ records on environmental cases.

Screnock defends

his record

In an interview, Screnock pushed back on criticism, saying his work as a lawyer does not affect his behavior as a judge or a justice should he be elected. He also pledged to “absolutely” recuse himself from any case he worked on should it reach the Supreme Court. The cases involving the dairy producers, for example, are ongoing.

“The work that I did as an attorney, I absolutely worked as hard as I could for my clients to achieve their objectives lawfully, and as a judge that’s not my role,” Screnock said. “No one should be concerned that any decision I reached on the bench should be somehow aligned to the work that I did as an attorney.”

Screnock also said that his work on such cases provided him with the knowledge of how environmental law intersects with government, which will help him analyze cases that come before the Supreme Court.

“The experience that I had really helped me understand environmental law issues and it’s not enough for a judge to want to protect the environment. We’re bound by the law, and environmental law is pretty complex stuff,” he said. “I bring that knowledge to the bench. I also understand the mindset of a government regulator.”

Dallet also has repeatedly touted the importance of clean air and clean water while campaigning for a 10-year term on the court. Screnock has said those statements and a Feb. 8 interview with Wisconsin Public Radio during which she said those values were “under attack” and that she would seek to “protect” them as a Supreme Court justice disqualifies her from deciding cases involving air and water quality.

But Dallet said the state Constitution assures Wisconsin residents have clean air and clean water and that a justice should seek to protect constitutional rights.

“We should keep in mind that the Constitution affords us important rights that need to be protected and one of those rights is the right of clean air and water,” she said. “I’m taking no positions on how it comes before the court.”

Experts: Records offers insight

Experts say while voters may take these examples and draw conclusions about how each candidate would decide cases involving environmental issues, it’s tough to actually glean how either candidate would rule in such cases.

“I think everybody has a knee-jerk reaction on this, and they may prove to be correct, but it is tough to say on these issues,” said UW-Madison Law School professor Ryan Owens, who heads the UW-Madison Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership.

Owens said it’s hard to predict because in recent years, judicial conservatives like Screnock and some liberal-leaning judges have shown more skepticism in deferring to government agency expertise. He said since at least the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court has supported a doctrine of deference to executive agencies if a federal statute is ambiguous, but conservatives now argue that deference has gone too far and that judges should not cede power to agencies.

University of Minnesota Law School professor Herbert Kritzer, who also previously taught political science and law at UW-Madison, said both candidates’ records or past statements don’t provide voters with much new information about the candidates.

“Their positions kind of line up where they broadly line up with political parties anyhow,” he said. “Maybe it will motivate voters to turn out, if they are aware of it.”

Kritzer said voters should be cautious to draw conclusions based on Screnock’s work at Michael Best & Friedrich because lawyers are paid to be advocates. But he also said it’s possible a lawyer’s work in certain areas may affect their views of such issues.

“There is potentially some impact that is going to occur from the work that you’ve done … but also when you get to be a judge, you’re looking at cases differently, hopefully,” he said. “Some people do that very well and some people don’t.”

He also said calling Dallet’s statements promoting clean air and clean water should not be considered disqualifying as Screnock has suggested.

“If there was one group she specifically criticized and they were party in a case, that would be different,” he said. “You’re not disqualified from being a judge if you say you’re going to be tough on criminals.”

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.