Supreme Court debate

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. 

MILWAUKEE — The influence of politics on the state’s officially nonpartisan Supreme Court was front and center Monday as the three candidates seeking to replace Justice Michael Gableman battled over the role of their personal views and with each other during their first debate.

The debate comes three weeks before the primary election and was barely 10 minutes old when one of the candidates attacked its sponsor, the conservative Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies.

It was yet another indication that the 2018 Wisconsin Supreme Court primary featuring Madison attorney Tim Burns, Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet and Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock is turning on political viewpoints.

“You have provided the brain power for the re-concentration of wealth in this country that has destroyed our once-thriving small towns and vibrant cities,” Burns told Federalist Society members in his opening statement of the candidate forum held at the Wisconsin Club in Milwaukee. “In doing so, you weakened our democracy to the point that we elected a perverse show-dog named (President Donald) Trump to lead our great nation.”

Burns, one of two candidates backed by liberals, has distinguished himself as an unabashed Democratic candidate in a nonpartisan race. Several times throughout the debate he and Dallet, also largely backed by liberals, traded barbs while conservative-leaning candidate Screnock looked on.

Robert Driscoll, president of the Milwaukee lawyers chapter of the Federalist Society, was unfazed by Burns’ comments. The national organization was created in the early 1980s by college students who believed law schools were controlled by professors who taught that a judge’s role was to help shape public policy instead of to apply a strict interpretation of law and the U.S. and state constitutions. Gov. Scott Walker and Trump have appointed justices to the state and U.S. supreme courts who they say echo this judicial philosophy.

“That is why the Federalist Society is here — to have a debate on ideas like this,” Driscoll said of holding an event displaying opposing viewpoints. “We’re glad Tim Burns was here and he’s absolutely entitled to his opinion.”

Dallet argued Monday that she is the race’s most independent candidate, pointing to Burns’ promise to rule according to his policy preferences and Screnock’s past work defending Walker’s collective bargaining legislation and Republican-drawn legislative maps. But Screnock said he was one candidate in the race who would be an impartial justice, applying the law as it is written rather than in a way that would align with his personal views.

Dallet also pushed back against claims from Burns that she was being insincere about her political views, and she blasted him for trying to make a point by bringing up her parents’ occupations as lawyers. She said she was raised mostly by a single mother.

“These are slimy, political attacks,” Dallet said. “The goal here is to improve the Supreme Court, to make sure it works better and improve the terrible, partisan reputation. By your own behavior, Mr. Burns, you have shown you cannot do that.”

Burns said Dallet has attacked him over talking about political issues even though she talks about her own, referring to past comments on collective bargaining legislation and environmental issues.

Meanwhile, Screnock said he found his opponents’ political speech “deeply troubling” and promised his election to the court would help keep the court from returning to its makeup of the mid-2000s, when liberal-leaning justices controlled the court.

“They were results-oriented decisions,” he said of the court’s rulings at that time. “I don’t want to see our Supreme Court go back to that time. ... It’s not a court of ideas, it’s a court of law.”

The three are seeking a 10-year term on a state high court now controlled 5-2 by conservative-leaning justices. The two top finishers in the Feb. 20 primary will advance to the April 3 general election.

Though officially nonpartisan, Supreme Court races are political competitions with candidates often receiving money from outside groups with ideological interests. The 2018 race is more politically charged than races in the past with the candidacy of Burns, who has been outspoken about his political and policy preferences and opinions about current legislation — statements that Dallet and Screnock have said could force Burns to recuse himself on related cases if he is ultimately elected.

“If expanding rights is legislating from the bench, count me in,” Burns said, banging his fist on the table.

Dallet said she has made it a rule to recuse herself from any case that comes before her in which a party is represented by attorneys from her husband’s law firm and has opposed the court’s current recusal rules that do not require justices to recuse themselves from cases involving top donors to their campaigns.

Screnock said he has never contributed to a judicial campaign other than his own and has never ruled on a case involving parties who have contributed to him. He said he has recused himself on cases in situations where there would “too much of a concern from someone looking from the outside that I could not be impartial.”

Burns said the question of recusal points to a larger concern of money in politics that “is on the verge of ruining our democracy.”

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.