Three seek seat on Wisconsin Supreme Court in primary Tuesday

February 19, 2018

An attorney and two judges are on the ballot Tuesday to settle which candidates will compete to replace Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman for a 10-year term on the state’s highest court.

Madison attorney Tim Burns, Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet and Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock have been building their cases to voters over which one is the least likely to infect the court with politics.

Even so, the candidates’ political associations have defined the officially nonpartisan race ahead of Tuesday’s primary. The general election is April 3.

Burns, who has spent much of his career as an attorney representing business clients in lawsuits against insurance companies, has emphasized he would be an “unshakable” progressive on the court and would fight Gov. Scott Walker’s “extreme agenda.”

Burns has fiercely criticized legislation like requiring photo identification to vote and partisan redistricting, positions conservatives have argued would force him to recuse from cases if those issues came before the court. He’s endorsed by Democratic politicians and progressive groups like Our Revolution, a national organization linked to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign.

Though Burns has an extensive resume as a business lawyer, he has argued only a handful of cases in state and federal courts. Burns has been criticized for expressing his political views, but he says justices should be honest about their opinions and not pretend the court is not affected by them.

Dallet has spent the past few months emphasizing her judicial experience as evidence of her ability to remain impartial, but she has also aired a television ad criticizing Republican President Donald Trump.

Dallet has been endorsed by hundreds of Democratic lawmakers and judges across the state. She has focused much of her criticism of the court for relaxing their recusal rules, and has said the current conservative-controlled court is unable to decide cases fairly because of the lack of requirement to remove justices from cases involving top campaign donors.

She was first elected to the bench 10 years ago, after working as an assistant district attorney. Since then, she has sat before more than 10,000 cases, she says. She has been criticized by Burns and conservatives for the way she’s handled some of those cases — including one in which an appeals court overturned her ruling that police were acting legally when they searched a black man standing outside of a convenience store for a few minutes, and found a handgun.

Screnock has major backing from conservatives, and was appointed to the Sauk County bench in 2015 by Gov. Scott Walker. He became an attorney about 10 years ago after working for many years in city finance and became Reedsburg’s first city administrator.

As an attorney, Screnock helped defend Walker’s signature legislation known as Act 10, which eliminated collective bargaining abilities for most public employees, and the Republican-written legislative maps from 2010.

He has been criticized for touting impartiality when compared to his opponents while also receiving heavy support from the state Republican party. More than half the money Screnock has raised since he jumped in the race has come from the Republican Party of Wisconsin — about $140,000.

As of Feb. 5, campaign finance filings show Burns has about $126,000 in cash, Dallet has $237,000 and Screnock has about $90,000. Dallet has consistently topped her opponents in money but has also contributed $200,000 of her own money to the campaign.