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Michael Screnock

Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock said Monday he would recuse from cases involving legislative maps his law firm helped draft but could not commit to whether he would step away from cases involving Act 10, which he defended in court. 

Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock said Monday if elected to the Supreme Court he would step away from cases involving Wisconsin’s current legislative district maps he and his former law firm helped draft.

But Screnock also said he would not commit to recusing himself from cases involving Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 law curtailing collective bargaining, known as Act 10, which he defended in six cases as an attorney at Michael Best & Friedrich.

Screnock said if elected to the high court, his decision would come down to the Act 10-related cases’ details.

“That’s one I would have to look at all the circumstances: How did it get to the court? Who are the parties involved? What are the issues involved?” Screnock said during an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board. “A challenge to a provision of Act 10 would give me the most to think about in terms of the recusal decision ... I would absolutely take very seriously that recusal decision. I just can’t commit — I wouldn’t commit — that I would or wouldn’t recuse myself.”

Screnock said even if an Act 10-related case came before the court that didn’t involve his former law firm, he would still consider recusing himself. But when it comes to the current legislative maps being challenged in court, Screnock promised to recuse if those maps came before the court. Screnock described his work on the maps as “minimal.”

“If for some reason these maps that are sitting at the U.S. Supreme Court — our current maps — somehow made their way back to the state Supreme Court and I was sitting there, I would recuse myself and I would have to because our rule requires that if an attorney that’s associated with the firm that I worked at worked on the case while I was there, I need to recuse myself,” he said.

The issue of when judges and justices should step away from cases has been a focus of this year’s Supreme Court race from the beginning when former candidate Tim Burns, a Madison attorney, took the unusual tack of running as a progressive and took public positions on issues and policies — comments his opponents, Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet and Screnock, said would have forced Burns to recuse himself from many cases if elected.

With Burns eliminated in the Feb. 20 primary, Dallet and Screnock now compete in an April 3 election for a 10-year term on the court and have each argued it is their opponent who would damage the integrity of the court if elected by not recusing from cases involving policy preferences or top campaign donors.

Questions for Dallet

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Dallet also faced questions last week during a Milwaukee debate about a Wisconsin State Journal report about at least one case Dallet presided over involving attorneys from her husband’s law firm despite a self-imposed rule she has touted on the campaign trail not to do so. Dallet also recused from three open cases after being asked about them by the State Journal.

Dallet has argued Screnock should promise to recuse from cases involving the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have spent on Screnock’s behalf.

She has said the millions of dollars outside groups have spent on Supreme Court candidates have resulted in a conservative-controlled court that is “bought and paid for” by those groups and has argued the court should adopt rules that require justices to recuse from cases involving top campaign donors.

“Judge Screnock is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the special interests that are funding the million dollars in ads on Wisconsin airwaves. Of course he continues to refuse to recuse himself when his biggest funders would be before Wisconsin’s Supreme Court,” said Dallet’s spokeswoman Jessica Lovejoy.

Screnock said Monday Dallet’s criticism of the outside spending’s effect on the court’s work misleads voters.

“My view is that even our Supreme Court is bound by the law and they don’t have unfettered discretion to just do whatever they want because there’s no higher court,” Screnock said. “It’s unfortunate that Judge Dallet has spent her time since June urging voters to believe that our court is doing anything other than following the law. She talks about the court being bought and paid for and simply doing the bidding of special interests, and she points to (rulings on) John Doe and Act 10 — two cases in 10 years and she ignores all the cases where those same interests have lost.”

Dallet has said there’s “no more clear example” of a court that is broken than when the court decided in 2015 to shut down an investigation into Walker raising millions of dollars for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which acted as a campaign hub for Republicans during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, according to investigators.

The Supreme Court shut down the investigation saying it had no basis in law and ordered all evidence be turned over to it for safekeeping.

Results of a recent Marquette Law School Poll also released Monday showed 14 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of Dallet compared to 10 percent for Screnock. The majority — 75 percent — did not know enough about either candidate to rate them, however.

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