Supreme Court debate (copy)

Madison attorney Tim Burns talks about his personal political views at a forum for Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Monday at the Wisconsin Club in downtown Milwaukee. 

At this time two years ago, three candidates for the state Supreme Court were engaged in an effort to assert themselves above each other as the most impartial, nonpartisan candidate for the job.

Times have changed. 

Campaigns for the state's high court, while officially nonpartisan, have been tinged with partisan elements for decades. For years, candidates quietly received support along largely party lines while stressing their independent nature. 

That changed with Madison attorney Tim Burns, who has made his Democratic politics a key element of his pitch to voters. Burns faces liberal-leaning Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet and conservative-leaning Sauk County Circuit Judge Michael Screnock in the Feb. 20 primary election. The two top vote-getters will face off in the April 3 general election. The winner will replace Justice Michael Gableman, who is not seeking another 10-year term.

The Cap Times spoke with all three candidates about the race, their experience and their philosophies.

Why they're running

Burns said he has seen equal opportunity for all disappear over the course of his adult life.

"I'm the grandchild of Mississippi sharecroppers. My father got a fifth grade education, my mom a 10th grade education. I know I wouldn’t be one of the top lawyers in the country but for the broad middle class of my childhood that included folks like us and provided us with good public libraries and public schools," Burns said, adding that courts shape the country's economy and political system.

Dallet said after more than 20 years in the courtroom, she felt now was the time to step up. 

"We are at a time when our rights are under attack," Dallet said, naming clean air and water, workers' rights and women's rights as key issues. "We’ve got a Supreme Court that’s broken. We need someone to step up with the values and experience to repair that court."

Screnock pointed to his career — as a city administrator, as an attorney and as a judge — which he said illustrates he has "a heart for public service and a real passion for the law."

As an attorney, Screnock said, he was fascinated by the Supreme Court's ability to "unravel ... tricky legal questions with an eye toward, what does the law say."

On their experience 

Dallet touted 11 years of prosecuting cases and nearly a decade as a judge in Milwaukee County, a career that includes experience with criminal justice and domestic violence cases. Dallet said she has spent her career "really standing up for empowering women and protecting the vulnerable."

Screnock pointed to his experience advocating at the appellate level as an attorney with Michael Best and Friedrich, and argued his background — representing public interests as a city administrator, representing private interests as an attorney and adhering to the rule of law as a judge — gives him a well-rounded approach to handle the issues that come before the Supreme Court. At the heart of many Supreme Court cases is a tension between private and public interests, he said. 

"I've spent my entire career wrestling with that tension," Screnock said.

Burns argued that he is "the only candidate in this race who has actually worked on an appellate court," and said he has spent his entire career "taking on big insurance companies." He would apply the same values to the court with the aim of "prevent(ing) concentrated wealth from taking over democratic institutions," he said.

On judicial philosophy and what makes a good judge

"If you have a justice that believes that they are empowered to decide cases based on what they think makes good policy, I think they will find themselves in the position of abusing and exceeding the authority that they’ve truly been given," Screnock said. "I think it’s appropriate to have someone who believes the role of the court is to apply the law as it is written ... We do that by interpreting the words the Legislature used and not injecting into that interpretation of what we wish the law said."

Screnock said he doesn't believe his opponents would keep their personal feelings out of their judicial decisions. 

Burns argued "the political values of judges matter" and voters ought to know what they are.

"My political value is one person, one vote," Burns said. 

He also said courts would benefit from more diversity in thought and background.

Dallet said she and Burns agree on values, but she argued a judicial candidate should not take positions on issues.

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"I think that you need to be able to consider all of the facts in a case, everything in front of you. You can’t parcel out pieces and parts to fit in whatever end result you want to get to," Dallet said. "It’s important to be able to listen, to empower people, to be a part of the process, and to be heard. To do the work that you need to do as far as achieving the right and just results. And I think it takes experience to have done all these things and to really be able to hand out justice."

On politics and their opponents

Burns, a longtime Democratic donor, said he was increasingly frustrated to see liberal candidates lose Supreme Court races. He was intrigued by the idea of a judicial candidate being vocal about his or her political views.

"What was very appealing about this, in these troubled times, was that voters deserve to know, and we’re at a time in our national history where if you’re utterly candid with voters, you stand the best chance of winning these races. So ... I try to be utterly candid with voters," Burns said.

Burns said his opponents "carry a tremendous amount of baggage" and are "part of the system." He pointed to Screnock's arrests in 1989 for trespassing and obstructing officers while participating in protests at a Madison abortion clinic, and to Dallet's 2013 endorsement of conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack. Dallet’s campaign noted she has also endorsed liberal justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley  

"People want someone like me who will stand up to lawlessness among the Republicans and (Gov.) Scott Walker," Burns said.

Screnock — who, as an attorney, was part of legal teams that defended Republican lawmakers targeted in recall elections and Walker's Act 10 law curbing most public employees' collective bargaining rights — said in cases with so much emotion involved, a ruling will inevitably appear political regardless of how the court rules.

"Whatever side loses is going to feel like it’s a political decision," he said. "You know, you look at, since 2010 we’ve had Republican control of the Legislature and the governor’s office, and so every law that’s hit our Supreme Court that’s been passed since 2010 — if the court upholds it, it’ll look like we’ve got a Republican court upholding Republican issues. It’s just a function of the political reality of the Capitol right now."

Dallet said Burns is going "down a dangerous path" by taking positions on issues and could end up having to recuse himself if related cases came before the  court.

"It’s very different to talk about values versus taking positions on issues," Dallet said. 

Dallet also accused Screnock of using the phrase "rule of law" as a catchphrase to appeal to the right. She questioned his representation of Republican politicians as an attorney, noting many are still in office. 

Expanding on the definition of "rule of law," Dallet gave a similar interpretation to Screnock's, with an emphasis on individual rights: "Rule of law means that you follow the law, even if it’s something that you would not agree with as a policy matter, as long as it doesn’t violate someone’s rights."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.