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Michael Screnock chats with students

Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, speaking to students at UW-Whitewater this month, says his work for municipal governments makes him qualified for a seat on the Supreme Court after three years on the county bench. 

Michael Screnock was steered into a career of public service, in part, by a childhood watching his father often work into the night.

“I have a memory of sitting in our family station wagon outside the Marquette County courthouse waiting (for my father),” Screnock said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. “I saw him frequently dealing with clients’ issues late at night — in the middle of the night — I saw him taking on cases that we all knew he was never going to get paid for.”

Screnock, a Sauk County judge who is running for a seat on the state Supreme Court, said his father Joseph Screnock’s job prosecuting crimes as Marquette County’s district attorney and then practicing law as a private attorney in Baraboo created his path toward a career he characterizes as helping people.

“A role of a small-town attorney really was to solve people’s problems and I watched that growing up,” he said. “My dad was not desiring to be revered as an attorney, or to be seen as a great leader in the community ... that absolutely was key to my world view and developed my passion for public service.”

Screnock, 48, is seeking a 10-year term on the high court after spending the early years of his career in small-city government — overseeing the finances in Ashland and running city government in Washburn and Reedsburg. It is that experience that he says sets him apart from his opponent, Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet, and the current justices on the court.

He said his approach to these jobs — even in his role as building inspector — was to refrain from exceeding his authority, which he applies to his role in a courtroom.

“It’s easy to understand as building inspector, my job was to apply the building code and it was important to me that I enforce the building code as it was written and not to add to it and not to subtract to it,” he said. “As city administrator, the opportunity for mischief was so much greater ... I resisted doing that so strongly because it wasn’t why they hired me.”

Robert Fiegle, who was on the Washburn City Council when Screnock was hired as the first city administrator nearly 20 years ago, said Screnock was well-prepared and agreeable.

“Being the first (administrator) in Washburn, he fit in nicely and worked with all the councilors and the mayor — he did a nice job,” Fiegle said. “He came well-prepared and listened to those that disagreed with him and just carried on good conversations.”

Career change

It was in Washburn when Screnock said he and his wife Karen, who had three young children at that point, decided together he should pursue a career in law — which meant commuting more than 10 hours each week to UW-Madison. He grew up watching his own mother pursue a college degree later in life, too — obtaining it the same month he earned his high school degree.

“It was scary ... jumping without a net,” he said. “But she really encouraged me to follow my passion ... it was very tough for a couple of years. Karen, she was playing the part of a single mom with me being gone during the week, but we grew stronger because of it.”

When Screnock graduated in December 2006, he joined the Michael Best & Friedrich law firm in Madison, where he said he honed skills of researching complex questions and issues, which he believes are crucial for a Supreme Court justice.

“I enjoy that challenge,” he said. “I’m not interested in this position to be able to be on the court and make large pronouncements on important cases. I’m interested in the role. I want to serve the state ... to make sure the court does it the right way and stays within the realm of its authority, and my skills and abilities match.”

In 2015, he was appointed to the Sauk County Circuit Court bench by Walker. He helped establish the court’s adult drug abuse treatment program which helps offenders battling substance abuse work toward receiving lesser penalties if they participate in treatment and education to combat addiction. Screnock said the experience required empathy and compassion he wasn’t expecting.

“To see the absolute struggles that they face to really overcome their addictions — to get back on their feet in every area of their life: employment, housing, getting their families back together ... that’s been really eye-opening for me because that wasn’t my life,” he said. “Our participants, they really, really want to succeed. It just shows how strong and real the addiction is, even in the face of real intent.”

Defending GOP, Act 10

Screnock’s most well-known work has been at Michael Best, defending the interests of Republicans in high-profile cases such as lawsuits against Gov. Scott Walker’s signature legislation known as Act 10, which eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees. He also helped defend legislative maps drawn by Republicans in 2011, which are being challenged as unconstitutional at the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s his work on those cases, Screnock’s endorsement from the National Rifle Association’s political arm, and Republican Party of Wisconsin work on his campaign that critics say prove he will keep the court’s partisan balance of 5-2, in favor of conservative justices who will seek to uphold Republican-written policies.

Screnock also has been criticized for not saying whether he would recuse himself from cases involving abortion issues after being arrested twice in 1989 while protesting against an abortion clinic when he was an undergraduate student at UW-Madison.

He has also faced scrutiny for not saying whether he would step away from cases involving the state’s business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which has spent about $1.3 million on behalf of Screnock in advertisements so far, according to liberal group One Wisconsin Now, which tracks campaign spending on court races.

“The purpose of the recusal rules is not to remove a judge who is clearly biased, the purpose of the recusal rules is to protect the institution of the courts from the perception of bias on the part of the public and that is why Judge Screnock’s refusal to consider changing the recusal rules back to the way they used to be is a true blind spot,” said Ed Fallone, a Marquette University Law School professor and former Supreme Court candidate backed by liberals, who also supports Dallet.

Screnock said he would recuse himself if he felt he could not be impartial.

“I have been absolutely clear from day one of this campaign that I will not allow my own personal political beliefs on any issue — including life issues — affect how I rule on cases,” Screnock said. “I have repeatedly said that if I didn’t feel like I could remain impartial on a case because it involved an issue I had a strong belief in, I would recuse myself and step aside, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to remove a reference to Michael Screnock's age when he graduated from high school.

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