Two Wisconsin judges met Friday for the last time before voters on Tuesday decide which one will hold a seat on the state Supreme Court for the next decade.
In a Friday night debate hosted by Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television in Madison, Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet and Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock each accused each other of being too aligned to their political beliefs and special interests to be able to decide cases impartially.
The debate comes as the state’s largest business lobby — which has spent more than $1 million on behalf of Screnock — is being criticized for not taking down a television ad airing statewide that uses identifying information of child victims of sexual assaults, despite a request from the victims’ family.
Meanwhile, Dallet is being criticized by Republicans for telling an audience at a fundraiser in San Francisco that their values were values Wisconsin has “lost along the way,” and touted the importance of defeating Republicans in upcoming elections.
During the debate, moderator Frederica Freyberg asked Screnock if he would ask Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce to remove its ad and whether he disavowed it. Screnock said he wouldn’t, and noted that in his courtroom he understands “the difficulty that victims face as they go through our criminal justice system and I do all that I can from the bench to try to lessen the impact of what they’re going through.
“WMC has been asked to take the ad off of the air and they’ve chosen not to and that’s their choice and I don’t ask them to do anything differently partly because I am a judge, and as a judge I don’t tell people what to do outside of the courtroom and I don’t weigh in on issues of public interest,” Screnock said.
An ‘activist judge’
The debate included a six-minute unmoderated portion during which candidates were asked to have a free-flowing discussion about what it means to be an “activist judge,” during which both candidates argued the other would be one on the Supreme Court.
Dallet said too much money has been spent on behalf of Screnock by WMC and the Republican Party of Wisconsin for voters to feel confident he would not decide cases in their favor.
“People don’t just give money away — they have an expectation,” Dallet said. “There is some investment that these groups are making in you in order to get you on the court so you’ll do their bidding.”
Screnock said there was no evidence that he has decided cases according to partisan interests to back up Dallet’s claims. He said Dallet has shown she would be an activist on the Supreme Court by touting “values,” including clean air and clean water, women’s access to health care, and fully funded public schools.
“I don’t know why in the context of a candidacy for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, you would think that the voters should care or should know what your values are — what political issues you hold dear — unless you actually intended to allow them to influence the decisions you would make from the bench,” Screnock said.
Dallet said the only policy change she would seek is changing the state’s judicial recusal rules.
Dallet, a judge for 10 years, has focused her campaign on the need for different rules governing when Supreme Court justices should step away from cases involving top donors to their campaigns. She also has heavily criticized the court as being “broken” and doing bidding for special interests.
That criticism has resulted in the loss of a handful of endorsements from judges, including a Milwaukee County judge who is the daughter of Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack. Dallet on Friday characterized the loss of endorsements as some judges seeing Screnock’s Republican backing and deciding to “go along with the partisan team.”
Screnock, who has been a judge for three years and defended Republicans in high-profile cases while practicing law at Michael Best & Friedrich, has promised to be a justice who applies written law instead of deciding cases according to his personal beliefs.