As Wisconsin's contest for presidential nomination delegates is getting most of the national attention April 5, Badger State voters also will decide a huge battle for the state's highest court.
The race comes following the sudden death last fall of 77-year-old justice Patrick Crooks, one of the few on the bench to avoid controversy in the past few years. Until Crooks' death, Wisconsin's Supreme Court had seen a divisive 4-3 split on most partisan cases, with conservative justices holding a narrow majority.
Crooks largely sided with the liberal minority.
Wisconsin’s conservative-majority high court now faces a tight race to fill the seat. Justice Rebecca Bradley, temporarily appointed to the seat by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, is running to make her position permanent. If she does, the conservative-leaning bloc would enjoy a lasting 5-2 edge. Bradley faces a perennial Supreme Court seat challenger in JoAnne Kloppenburg, a Wisconsin Court of Appeals judge who ran against sitting conservative Justice David Prosser in 2011.
Though both Bradley and Kloppenburg have touted their impartiality, polls have found Bradley overwhelmingly favored among Republicans and Kloppenburg overwhelmingly favored among Democrats.
Bradley’s campaign came under fire in February after a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel investigation found early writings from the justice, espousing hard-line anti-homosexuality views. In the columns, published while she was a student at Marquette University in 1992, Bradley called people diagnosed with AIDS “degenerates who basically commit suicide through their behavior,” in response to the student senate’s vote to allow the establishment of LGBT- and AIDS-focused groups.
In a statement, Bradley apologized, arguing that the 24-year-old writings, published under her original surname of Grassl, were “not reflective of [her] worldview.”
“This is a blatant mudslinging campaign to distract the people from the issues at hand,” she wrote in a statement.
Meanwhile, critics have panned Kloppenburg as an extreme liberal, pointing to her years of donations to Democrats within the state, including multiple donations to former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, as well a $200 contribution to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in early 2010 as the Democrat prepared to face then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker in a bid for the governor’s mansion.
Kloppenburg also contributed to the most recent campaign of Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who is considered to sit on the liberal side of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court.
During campaign stops in Wisconsin, both Democratic presidential candidates took time to talk about the Supreme Court election.
Sen. Bernie Sanders told a crowd of 4,400 at the University of Wisconsin
on April 3 that he hoped a large turnout would help elect Kloppenburg.
Speaking in Milwaukee on April 2, Hillary Clinton told a crowd at a
Democratic Founder’s Day Dinner that there was “no place" on "any"
court for Bradley.
The race comes amid a recent history of judicial dysfunction in the state’s highest court. This includes an instance in which Justices David Prosser (a conservative) and Ann Walsh Bradley (a liberal, no relation to Rebecca Bradley), had some sort of brief physical altercation during a heated argument with five other justices present. Accounts differ as to who attacked whom, and how,
Crooks was the only judge not to have been in attendance during the attack.
Democrats and liberal groups in Wisconsin have decried what they see as a Supreme Court that has come to rule in favor of other largely conservative efforts, both in legislative issues and criminal investigations.
In 2014, the court upheld the constitutionality of Gov. Walker’s “Act 10,” which effectively ended public employee unions in Wisconsin. The ruling was 5-2, with Crooks — who frequently sides with the liberal minority on the bench — siding with the conservative majority.
The Supreme Court also ruled 4-2 to halt an investigation into allegations that Gov. Walker had conducted illegal coordination with campaign special-interest groups. The “John Doe” and “John Doe II” investigations were seen by many Republicans, including Walker himself, as a political witch hunt by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.
A poll released March 31 from Marquette Law School gives Bradley a five-percentage-point lead, but also found that 18 percent of voters remain undecided. The same poll found that 69 percent of Republicans plan to vote for Bradley, with 17 percent undecided. Likewise, 62 percent of Democrats intend to vote for Kloppenburg, with 17 percent also undecided.
Recent polls show Sanders likely to take a majority of Wisconsin’s 96 delegates in Tuesday’s election.
None of the Republican presidential hopefuls campaigning in Wisconsin mentioned the Supreme Court race in public appearances.