Dark Money’s High Court Candidate
Michael Screnock blows off candidate forums, bets on special interest money.
Burns and Dallet faced off at last August at a candidate forum in Madison hosted by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and covered by the Wisconsin State Journal. Yet Screnock passed on this opportunity for media coverage, citing “scheduling difficulties,” the newspaper reported.
On October 15 Burns and Dallet attended a candidate forum at the East Side Progressive Forum at Lake Edge Lutheran Church in Madison and Screnock was once more a no-show, bedeviled yet again by those pesky scheduling difficulties. “His campaign manager said he had something else on his schedule,” says forum organizer Gretchen Lowe.
A candidate for statewide office can’t drive from Baraboo to metro Milwaukee, less than two hours drive away? How serious is he about running for this position?
Screnock did attend yesterday’s candidate forum in Milwaukee held by the conservative Federalist Society, but that’s the first one he’s bothered with. Nor would he answer questions from Wisconsin Justice Initiative, about his resume, honors and judicial views, which published the answers as written by the candidates.
Even more surprising, he declined to participate in the traditional written Q & A done by the League of Women Voters.
“It’s disappointing,” says Erin Grunze, the group’s executive director. The candidate guide, she notes, “are the words verbatim from the candidates themselves and reaches thousands of Wisconsin voters all around the state. It’s a missed opportunity for voters to get to know candidate Screnock and what he would bring to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The information is compiled to help voters make informed decisions when going to the polls.”
It’s all part of an obvious pattern, says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause of Wisconsin: “Not only does Screnock not fill out questionnaires or attend forums, he doesn’t bother to raise much money.” Indeed, Dallet has raised five times more campaign dollars than Screnock, while Burns has raised three times more, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reports.
That is probably a gross underestimate of what these two conservative groups will likely spend. Together they spent $2.6 million to reelect former Justice David Prosser, $2.6 million to support Annette Ziegler, $2.3 million on Michael Gableman and $850,000 to reelect Pat Roggensack. An incredible 76 percent of Prosser’s support came from Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers. For Gableman, the corresponding figure was 69 percent, for Ziegler 59 percent, for Roggensack 48 percent, as Urban Milwaukee reported.
And it was money well spent, for these four conservative justices did everything they could to support the two groups. In the face of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a problem existed where one of the parties “had a significant and disproportionate influence” on the election of a justice, and a resulting national movement by states to adopt recusal rules for judges, Wisconsin’s high court was one of just two to reject proposals whereby a specific campaign contribution amount would trigger recusal, an analysis by the National Center for State Courts noted.
Instead these four judges signed on to an opinion by Roggensack which accepted verbatim a rule suggested by Wisconsin Manufacturers, which stated that a campaign donation by itself could never require a recusal. Then Prosser and Gableman rejected a prosecutor’s request that they recuse themselves from the decision ruling on the legality of a John Doe probe of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Club for Growth, and then ruled with the majority shutting down the Doe probe and thereby protecting the two groups from prosecution.
Gableman has since decided to retire and Screnock will make the perfect replacement. He has already said he shares the same judicial philosophy as Gableman, and is likely to be just as supportive of these conservative groups and Gov. Scott Walker. As an attorney with Michael Best & Frederich, Screnock helped handle six different legal challenges to Act 10, Walker’s signature law decimating collective bargaining rights of the public employees, and also worked with Republican legislative redistricting now being challenged in the courts as unconstitutional gerrymandering.
For his reward, Screnock was named a circuit court judge by Walker, just nine years after his graduation from law school and with almost no experience handling trials: zero jury trials and just one non-jury trial. Just in case there was any doubt he was a Walker sycophant, Screnock, in his application to become judge, cited a court case upholding Act 10 as the “best Wisconsin or U.S. Supreme decision in the last 30 years.”
And few if any attorneys in the state has better proven his loyalty to right-wing special interests than Screnock.
As a result of the 2015 Republican law legalizing coordination between “independent” advocacy groups and candidate campaigns, Wisconsin is now one of just two states (Florida is the other) that allow coordination that past U.S. Supreme court rulings have said is Illegal. This means WMC and Club for Growth can not only run ads that support Screnock, but can coordinate their spending and ads with his campaign. “I’m sure they are coordinating with him right now,” says Heck.
No wonder Screnock is too busy to make those forums.
Because Florida and Wisconsin allow such coordination, it makes both states a magnet for dark money, which can be spent without disclosure and coordinated with campaigns. But Wisconsin is a much smaller state, and as a result, Heck says, “more dark money flows into Wisconsin per capita than any other state. This is the best place in America for a dark money shop to set up.”
It opens the doors to campaigns like the one Screnock is apparently conducting, where you avoid the public and most candidate forums, and simply let the secret consultants with unlimited funding pull the strings of your campaign. Those same experts, you can be sure, will have strong ideas on how Screnock should rule as a Supreme Court justice, assuming the campaign goes as they have planned.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.