Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Rebecca Dallet and Michael Screnock each made the case Friday that it was their opponent voters should not trust to decide cases fairly if elected to the state’s highest court.
Dallet, a Milwaukee County judge, and Screnock, a Sauk County judge, met in Milwaukee Friday evening for their first statewide debate in this year’s race for a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court.
Dallet argued Screnock would be a “rubber stamp” for Gov. Scott Walker and conservative interest groups — including for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which often appears before the Supreme Court and has spent more than $500,000 to help elect Screnock — and criticized him for seeking the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.
And Screnock argued Dallet would be a “liberal, activist judge” who has “crossed the line” into partisanship during the campaign by promoting values such as fully funded public schools, clean air and water, and women’s rights, and running a television ad criticizing President Donald Trump.
Though officially nonpartisan, Supreme Court races often draw heavy spending from outside groups with political ties to help elect each candidate. In this year’s race, Dallet is largely backed by liberals, while Screnock is supported by conservatives.
Friday’s debate hosted by WISN is the first of two statewide forums planned ahead of the April 3 election.
The issue of when a justice or judge should recuse from hearing cases was a focus of the debate, which comes after Republicans criticized Dallet for hearing cases involving her husband’s law firm despite often touting on the campaign trail that she has a self-imposed rule to always recuse from such cases, and for receiving donations from attorneys involved in cases before her.
“My opponent has made the recusal rule the hallmark of her campaign,” Screnock said. “She has said over and over and over again that it looks like someone can buy justice or a justice — and in the midst of this campaign, when that’s the hallmark of her campaign, that’s the calling card of her campaign, she’s collecting endorsements from attorneys. She’s collecting contributions from attorneys who are actively appearing in cases in front of her.”
But Dallet noted that in the one case she ultimately did not recuse from, the attorney from her husband’s firm did not make an appearance, and that the attorneys’ donations amount to participation in the democratic process and don’t come close to matching the millions being spent on Screnock’s behalf.
“I have gone above and beyond what is required and my self-imposed rule is for the very purpose of making sure that there is understanding and competence in our courts,” Dallet said. “We’re talking about a couple hundred dollars here and there — what we need to be talking about are millions of dollars ... we’re talking about entities (that) are going to give my opponent millions and those parties are going to be sitting in front of him in cases ... when we talk about fairness, how does anyone in our state think that’s fair?”
When asked why the public should believe he won’t be a rubber stamp for the groups who spend on his behalf, Screnock said his record as a judge since 2015 shows he doesn’t decide cases on a partisan basis.
“There is absolutely no evidence of anything I’ve done on the bench — that I’ve done anything other than follow the law,” he said.
Dallet said she also would not be a rubber stamp for liberal interests despite endorsements from Democratic lawmakers, citing her work to campaign in conservative circles as well as liberal circles, and receiving support from judges appointed by Walker.
“I’ve been in places where there have been plenty of conservative people and I have conservatives backing my campaign,” she said.
Screnock was appointed to the court in 2015 by Walker after working as a lawyer for about eight years during which he helped defend Walker’s signature law curtailing collective bargaining for most public employees known as Act 10.
Dallet was elected in 2008 after working as an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County for 11 years.
The candidates will meet again March 30 in a debate hosted by Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.