The latest battle over the ideological balance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court plays out in the Feb. 20 primary, where one of three candidates will be eliminated ahead of a spring election.
Partisan politics have weighed heavy over weeks of campaigning. Madison attorney Tim Burns has most embraced his liberal beliefs, while Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet has sought to appear as a moderate. Sauk County Circuit Judge Michael Screnock, an appointee of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, has the backing of conservatives.
The primary is the first statewide race this year, and while officially nonpartisan, it could be a bellwether for how Republicans and Democrats stand heading into the fall. Turnout is expected to be low, likely less than 10 percent.
The top two vote-getters advance to the April 3 general election, with the winner replacing outgoing conservative Justice Michael Gableman. He decided against seeking another 10-year term.
The court is currently controlled 5-2 by conservatives, so no matter who wins the ideological control will not change.
Burns is the most vocal about his liberal beliefs and political leanings, saying that the nonpartisan race is a charade and candidates should be honest about who they are. He introduces himself as an “unshakable champion for progressive values” and has called President Donald Trump an “unhinged billionaire.”
Burns, who represents clients nationwide in lawsuits against insurance companies, is the only non-judge in the race. He also has little experience litigating in Wisconsin courtrooms, having argued only one case in state court and six in federal court in Wisconsin.
Burns argues his experience outside of Wisconsin is a strength that will help him fix what he views as a broken system. And, he argues a victory for him will energize liberals across the state headed into the fall.
Dallet argues that Burns has gotten too political. But she’s walking a fine line trying to win over many of the same liberal voters Burns is appealing to. She ran a commercial attacking Trump and has criticized the current Supreme Court for voting in 2015 to end an investigation into Walker and conservatives.
“We have a Supreme Court that has lost the confidence our state needs, our public needs, in its ability to do justice for all of us,” she said at a forum earlier this month.
Although not as strident as Burns, she advocates for clean air and water, empowering women and fighting opioid abuse. She describes the current Supreme Court as “broken.”
Dallet spent 11 years as an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County before being elected a judge in 2008.
Screnock, who was appointed as a judge by Walker in 2015, is the choice of conservatives. He argues that all he cares about is the rule of law, but he’s also embraced his past, saying it was a “privilege” as an attorney to defend Walker’s Act 10 law taking away collective bargaining rights from public unions. Screnock has also said he has no regrets about being twice arrested as a college student in 1989 for taking part in anti-abortion protests.
“Both of my opponents are actively campaigning on the political issues they hold dear,” Screnock told the Wisconsin Counties Association earlier this month. He called that “deeply troubling” and said he won’t let his personal beliefs affect his rulings.
Burns’ unusual approach has won him the endorsement of Our American Revolution, the political arm of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Burns is also endorsed by liberal U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who represents the Madison area in Congress, as well as former U.S. Reps. David Obey and Steve Kagen.
Dallet has endorsements from more than 200 judges and 150 other elected officials from across the state.
Screnock has been endorsed by anti-abortion groups Wisconsin Family Action and Wisconsin Right to Life and uses the hashtag #wiright on his Twitter posts. The state chamber of commerce, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, has run nearly half a million dollars in ads supporting Screnock.