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Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley left oral arguments early last week so she could give a speech to the state’s largest business group that has spent heavily to support conservative judicial candidates, sparking strong criticism Friday from her opponent in next month’s election.

Bradley, who was appointed to the state’s highest court in October by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, is endorsed by many conservatives as she runs for a full 10-year term. She faces Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, who is backed by liberals, in the April 5 election. The contest is officially nonpartisan, but court races have largely broken down along ideological lines in recent years.

Bradley gave the speech on Feb. 24 at the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce’s “business day” event in Madison. The event was held at a convention center about three blocks from the Capitol, where the high court was hearing arguments that afternoon. Her speech was scheduled to begin at roughly the same time as arguments were concluding in a case about a woman whose child-care certification had been revoked.

Bradley’s campaign confirmed on Friday that she left arguments early to attend the event.

“Supreme Court justices routinely excuse themselves from portions of oral arguments for personal or scheduling reasons,” campaign spokeswoman Madison Wiberg said in a statement.

“Justice Bradley had reviewed all briefs in detail before the oral arguments, while on the bench she had heard answers to the queries posed by her colleagues and had no further inquiries on the merits of the case when she excused herself to attend a previously scheduled speaking engagement.”

Bradley’s political opponents blasted the move, noting that she told business leaders at that event “I am your public servant.”

Kloppenburg’s spokeswoman, Melissa Mulliken, said the early departure was “appalling.”

“There is nothing routine about a justice on the Supreme Court leaving oral arguments to curry favor with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce,” Mulliken said. “It is absolutely clear that Rebecca Bradley’s allegiance is to the big money special interests and partisan politics that she has used to fuel her fast track rise. It is appalling she would so blatantly disregard her duty and the people of Wisconsin.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Friday that at least one other justice left early that day. Annette Ziegler told the newspaper she left after the last lawyer spoke, while Michael Gableman said he left with about 10 minutes left in oral arguments to attend the WMC event.

Gableman told the newspaper that justices leave court arguments early on occasion but Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said departures prior to oral arguments are uncommon.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has yet to spend money in this year’s court race. But in four races between 2007 and 2013, it spent an estimated $5.6 million to help elect conservative justices, according to a tally by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that tracks campaign spending. All four of the justices that WMC backed won their races and now comprise the conservative majority of the court.

Bradley’s opponents have tried to paint her as beholden to conservative interests, pointing to her being appointed three times by Walker, her appearances at WMC events and the fact that prominent Republicans are raising money to help her campaign.

“Instead of doing her job, Rebecca Bradley left a hearing to run off and pledge ‘I am your public servant’ to the state’s big business lobby she hopes will spend big in her race like they did to elect four other conservative justices,” said Scot Ross, leader of the liberal activist group One Wisconsin Now.

On Friday, the conservative advocacy group Wisconsin Alliance for Reform purchased several advertisements on broadcast stations across Wisconsin.

The group spent six figures on behalf of Bradley ahead of of the Feb. 16 primary.

State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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