Gov. Scott Walker announced Friday he is appointing to the Wisconsin Supreme Court appeals court Judge Rebecca Bradley, who is already running to fill the vacant seat and is gathering support among conservatives.
Walker made the announcement at a news conference at the Capitol, where he was joined by Bradley and Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.
“I am deeply humbled and honored that the governor has expressed his confidence in me,” Bradley said. “I am committed to the rule of law, to applying the law fairly and impartially and to upholding the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of Wisconsin.”
Walker interviewed three applicants Wednesday for an opening on the court after the death of Justice N. Patrick Crooks on Sept. 21 at the age of 77.
“I want a man or woman of integrity; I want someone who understands the law; and most importantly, I want someone who understands that the role of the judiciary is to uphold the Constitution of this country and of this state and those laws duly enacted within,” Walker said.
“I believe that Judge Bradley will be that kind of justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”
Walker said he waited until after Crooks’ funeral to begin the search process but moved quickly because the public wants the vacancy to be filled.
Supreme Court spokesman Tom Sheehan said Friday afternoon that he expects Bradley will be sworn in and sitting for oral arguments scheduled for Monday.
Walker stopped short of endorsing Bradley in next spring’s Supreme Court election but added, “it’s pretty clear what my opinion is.”
Walker previously appointed Bradley to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 2012 and to the 1st District Court of Appeals, which covers Milwaukee County, in May. She won re-election to the circuit court in 2013 with 54 percent of the vote against a Democratic prosecutor who made an issue of Walker appointing her.
Democrats swiftly criticized Walker’s third appointment of Bradley in three years.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said the timing of the appointment, as well as Bradley’s ties to Walker, raise questions. Shilling said Walker should let voters decide who fills the Supreme Court seat in the spring election.
“It is unprecedented for a Wisconsin governor of any party to appoint a declared judicial candidate to the Supreme Court this close to an election,” Shilling said. “This power grab sets a terrible precedent and doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Not declared candidates
Walker defended the decision, saying previous governors appointed justices who were also candidates for the job in a contested election. He mentioned former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s appointments of Janine Geske in 1993 and Diane Sykes in 1999, both of whom ran for re-election in the next spring election.
“I shouldn’t discount someone just because they’re announced candidates,” he said.
But neither were declared candidates at the time of their appointment, and Geske said she hadn’t planned on running until after landing the appointment.
“I didn’t feel like I had the electoral base to run without the appointment,” Geske said. “That’s worth a lot to Judge Bradley.”
Geske said she has some concern that conservatives have rallied behind Bradley as if she’ll simply affirm their views, but added, “I’m hopeful that she will continue to be the person that she talks about being, which is the independent judge who will look at each case impartially.”
Of the state’s 75 Supreme Court justices since 1853, 45 were initially appointed to the court, including current justices Shirley Abrahamson and David Prosser. The last appointed justice was Louis Butler, under Gov. Jim Doyle, who lost his re-election bid in 2008 to Michael Gableman, one of a series of hotly contested races over the past decade that have solidified a now 5-2 conservative majority on the high court.
Crooks was considered a swing vote who often sided with the liberal minority of the court on high-profile issues, such as a decision in July to halt a John Doe investigation into Walker’s recall campaign. He voted with the 5-2 majority upholding Walker’s collective bargaining law, known as Act 10, but he issued a concurring opinion saying workers should have the right to bargain collectively. He was the only justice not present during a physical altercation between Prosser and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in 2011, an episode that laid bare tensions between the conservative and liberal justices and fueled perceptions of a dysfunctional court.
Asked about how she can ameliorate those tensions, Rebecca Bradley said she has gotten along with judges at the circuit and appellate courts and looks forward to working with each of her colleagues on the Supreme Court.
Bradley has had a “distinguished career” in the private sector and an “excellent record” overall, Walker said.
Bradley, 44, a Milwaukee native, graduated from Marquette University in 1993 with a degree in business administration and business economics and from the UW-Madison Law School in 1996. She litigated cases for more than 16 years at Hinshaw & Culbertson and Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek. She defended physicians in malpractice lawsuits and businesses and individuals in product liability and personal injury cases, and also worked on commercial, information technology and intellectual property cases.
She serves on the state’s advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and on the board of the St. Thomas More Lawyers Society, which promotes “the study and application of theology, philosophy and jurisprudence to the end that the system of law may better apply eternal truths to the solution of everyday legal problems.” She previously served as chairwoman of the State Bar’s Business Law Section.
She also served as president of the Milwaukee Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative organization dedicated to fostering an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
The group’s website says it emphasizes “reordering priorities within the legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values and the rule of law” over what it describes as “orthodox liberal ideology which advocates a centralized and uniform society.”
Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said Bradley worked in Milwaukee’s children’s court dealing with issues such as parental rights and delinquency, so many of her decisions aren’t public. He wasn’t aware of any major appellate court decisions she has written.
“She’s a person who’s fair and has a great deal of integrity. She’s smart,” Esenberg said.
Jeremy Levinson, a Milwaukee-based lawyer supporting Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald, said he doesn’t know much about her judicial philosophy.
“I don’t know how it’s possible for anyone to have any sense of her jurisprudence because she hasn’t been anywhere very long,” Levinson said. “Ideological conservatives have been promoting her career. It’s hard not to see that first and foremost as suggesting that her meteoric rise is more about politics than who’s good for the court.”
Bradley had announced her candidacy for Crooks’ seat before he died and after he announced he would be retiring.
The other two applicants for the seat were Madison attorney Claude Covelli and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jim Troupis, who Walker appointed to that position earlier this year.
Covelli said Friday he’s considering a run for the seat in the spring and will announce his plans soon.
“I am disappointed but remain resolute in my belief that Wisconsin needs and wants a nonpartisan voice” on the Supreme Court, Covelli said.
In addition to Bradley and Donald, Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg is running for the seat next spring but both she and Donald declined to apply for the appointment to fill the remaining 10 months of Crooks’ term.
“The choice in this campaign could not now be clearer: Gov. Walker’s choice or the people’s choice. I am running to be the people’s choice,” Kloppenburg said in a statement Friday.
A primary election scheduled for February would narrow the field to two candidates who would face off on April 5.
State Journal reporter Mark Sommerhauser contributed to this report.