State News

Racing to the Supreme Court; candidates juggle partisanship in a charged election year

Tim Burns, Rebecca Dallet and Michael Screnock trade criticisms of their rivals’ political and judicial philosophies leading up to next Tuesday’s nonpartisan primary.

Image By: Morgan Winston

As the election to fill a vacant seat on the state’s Supreme Court approaches, the race’s three candidates have taken starkly different philosophical avenues in a highly-partisan electoral cycle.

The electoral process for the state’s highest court is unique. Since the high court is a nonpartisan institution the race is kicked off by a nonpartisan primary rather than intra-party contention. The race will narrow the field to two candidates, who then meet in a final general election.

This year’s primary will be held on Feb. 20, while the general election will occur on April 3.

Despite the ostensible separation of party politics from the judiciary, some candidates have made explicit the usually implicit ideological and partisan forces at play.

Tim Burns, a Madison attorney, has embraced support from a swath of Democratic and progressive groups, openly identifying with the party in a new TV ad.

“I am the most likely candidate to stand up to Scott Walker and the Legislature when they act outside the law,” Burns said on Wisconsin Public Television. “I’ve been very open about my progressive political values in this campaign because I believe voters need to know what they’re voting for.”

In an election year charged with heavy partisan loyalties and resentment, Burns hopes that riding a potentially Democratic wave will give his campaign the momentum that it needs, as well as unmask what he views as an unrealistic expectation of justices altogether.

“No one who serves on the Supreme Court is a blank state. You expect people to come to that position having informed themselves of the law in our political system, and when you inform yourself, you develop opinions,” Burns said, defending his explicit partisanship.

Burns has reiterated his opposition to partisan redistricting, restrictions on abortion access and Act 10, the controversial law passed in 2011 which hugely diminished labor union power in the state.

Challenging Burns for the support of the state’s Democrats is Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet.

Unlike Burns, however, Dallet has asserted her intention to refuse partisan affiliation, arguing that partisan politics damages the Supreme Court as an institution.

“The rule of law is going to be subject to his political views, as he’s already stated in his opening statement,” Dallet said of Burns during the race’s first debate.

While Dallet hopes to appeal to moderates through her nonpartisan philosophy, she has voiced support for liberal decisions, received several endorsements from prominent liberal justices and even explicitly criticized President Donald Trump, criticizing his statements on immigrants as “horrific” and calling on political leaders to “stand up and condemn the President’s ridiculous and offensive words.”

Conversely, Michael Screnock, a Sauk County Circuit Court judge appointed by Walker, has received universal support from conservative groups but asserts his judicial philosophy is diametrically opposed to using the judiciary as a legislative or activist institution.

"I share ... the belief that it is the role of a judge to say what the law is and not what it should be,” Screnock said in his announcement speech in June. “Judges must respect the different roles of the court and Legislature and should not legislate from the bench."

Screnock has significant ties to the state Republican party, however, even defending Act 10 in court during his years in private practice and playing a role in the legal team that aided the party’s redistricting effort at the start of the decade.

"Whether it’s Tim Burns with Scott Walker or Rebecca Dallet with Donald Trump, it’s clear both these candidates are liberal activists playing partisan politics instead of defending our Constitution. Judge Michael Screnock is the only candidate who will uphold the rule of law,” said Alec Zimmerman, a spokesperson for the state Republican party, in a statement.

By next Tuesday, only two of the candidates will continue on to April’s head-to-head general election.

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