A Wisconsin State Journal Sunday, Feb. 3 editorial:
Madison attorney Tim Burns is running in the spring election as “an unshakable champion of liberal, Democratic and progressive values.”
He promises to “take on giant corporations” if elected, and touts his “career of standing up against insurance companies.” On the home page of his campaign website, he stands in front of Democratic Party campaign signs and slogans.
All of which would be just fine — if he were running for the state Assembly or some other elected position in which he were supposed to represent constituencies and apply his personal views to public policy debates and decisions.
But Burns is not running for the Legislature or even a seat on the Dane County Board. Instead, he wants to join the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is supposed to be fair and impartial in deciding court cases — without applying political opinions to its legal decisions.
Burns calls a nonpartisan judiciary a “fairy tale,” and he has a point. Because Wisconsin continues to elect judges — rather than appointing them based on merit — Wisconsin high-court candidates must pander to voters and seek campaign donations from many of the same attorneys and interest groups who will come before them seeking favorable court decisions, if they are elected.
That system encourages partisan bias and creates blatant conflicts of interest. Yet in Wisconsin, it’s just business as usual.
Judicial elections are turning the state’s best judges into the worst of politicians. And with Burns’ unabashed partisanship in his bid for a nonpartisan post this spring, the race for state Supreme Court is degrading fast.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet, another high-court challenger, sharply criticized President Donald Trump in her first campaign ad. That’s an odd way to express impartiality.
Then there’s Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, the conservative candidate for the seat. He professes to oppose judicial activism. Yet he has a history as a political activist, having twice been arrested in Madison while protesting an abortion clinic.
That doesn’t suggest he has the calm and measured temperament judges are supposed to exhibit as they apply the law. To be fair, his arrests date back to 1989, when he was 19 and 20 years old. Still, when asked about the incidents, Screnock doesn’t regret them or seem to understand why voters might question his ability to rule fairly on abortion cases.
The two highest vote-getters in the three-way primary for state Supreme Court on Feb. 20 will advance to the April 3 election and compete for a 10-year term. The winner will replace departing Justice Michael Gableman.
In a way, electing a staunch partisan to Wisconsin’s top court is fitting because the current court has been so combative and infected by politics. Former Justice David Prosser, who previously served as Assembly speaker, actually put his hands around the neck of a fellow justice during a heated disagreement in 2011.
Voters this spring won’t have an easy choice in this race. What they should look for is the one candidate who is most likely to have an open mind that’s free from partisan influence.