The Strange Race for Supreme Court
Look carefully. Both candidates are not what they claim to be.
The race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court is a perplexing one. Both campaigns suggest we are choosing between a liberal and conservative candidate for the court, with Michael Screnock calling Rebecca Dallet a “liberal activist judge,” and Dallet espousing liberal “values” during the campaign. But there is reason to doubt this. Dallet is a former prosecutor who has been a tough-on-crime judge and supported conservative Pat Roggensack‘s 2013 reelection to the court.
Screnock, meanwhile, suggests he will stick to the rule of law and will be a strict constructionist as judge. Yet his entire professional career has been that of an ideologue who can be counted on to support the most right-wing positions. When you review the histories of both candidates, it’s Screnock that seems more likely to be an activist.
Screnock grew up in Baraboo and attended UW-Madison and was twice arrested for blocking access to the Bread and Roses Women’s Medical Center in Madison to prevent women from getting an abortion. Screnock and other protestors lay prostate on the ground and forced police to pick them up to get them into the police car, and then refused to give their names. This sort of activism is far outside the mainstream, yet Screnock told the Journal Sentinel “it’s not something I’ve ever regretted doing.”
Screnock didn’t get his law degree until he was 37, in 2006, and spent his entire nine years as an attorney working with the well-connected Michael Best & Frederich law firm in Madison. There he handled many environmental cases “and was an advocate for companies engaged in frac sand mining and other environmentally damaging activities,” aggressively pushing back against state regulators, as Bill Lueders has written for the Madison weekly Isthmus.
“Michael Screnock has represented some of the state’s worst environmental actors in bright-line cases that pit narrow special interests against clean, safe water for Wisconsin families” and would serve “the Walker administration’s anti-environment agenda,” as Ryan Billingham, spokesman for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, told Isthmus.
Dallet has charged that Screnock would be a “rubber stamp” for Walker. At Michael Best he helped handle six different legal challenges to Act 10, Walker’s signature law decimating collective bargaining rights of the public employees, and also worked closely with Republicans to create one of the most gerrymandered legislative redistricting plans in modern American history, which was overturned by a federal court as unconstitutional and is now being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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 case upholding Act 10 as the “best Wisconsin or U.S. Supreme decision in the last 30 years.”
Screnock has supported the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision ruling that coordination of independent advocacy groups with candidate campaigns is legal, making Wisconsin one of just two states ignoring decades of precedent saying such coordination isn’t allowed. And he has supported the court’s unwillingness to adopt recusal rules, in violation of recommendations by the U.S. Supreme Court, and has thereby supported court members ruling on cases involving two groups that provided anywhere from 48 to 76 percent of all spending on their reelection. And he has signaled that he, too, will become a justice for sale by ruling out his own recusal in cases involving the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) a group which is the most dominant legislative lobbyist in the state Capitol, and frequently appears before the state high court. Screnock has gotten the vast majority of his support from this group: some $1.5 million has been spent by the WMC to support him, including $588,531 in the primary and $898430 for the general election, according to figures compiled by One Wisconsin Now.
In case all of this left any doubt what kind of justice he would be, Screnock has pointed to Justice Michael Gableman, one of the least ethical members ever to serve on the court, as the kind of justice he wants to emulate. Screnock’s campaign is staffed by longtime Republican operatives Sean Lansing and Luke Hilgemann, and former state GOP spokesman Nathan Conrad, and 38 percent of his campaign’s total support has come from the Republican Party. (Not one dollar of Dallet’s support has come from the Democratic Party.)
Yet Screnock claims that after spending his entire legal career as a Republican advocate, and running what looks exactly like a Republican campaign, he will suddenly serve as a justice for all the people. If so, why has he been so unwilling to appear before all the people at judicial forums? Leading up to the primary election, he declined to appear at numerous forums, including those held by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy in Madison, by the East Side Progressive Forum at Lake Edge Lutheran Church in Madison, the Brown County Medical Society in Green Bay and the Citizens Coalition at the Greenfield Public Library. Nor would he answer questions from Wisconsin Justice Initiative, about his resume, honors and judicial views, nor by the League of Women Voters, both of whom publish the answers as written by the candidates. And since the primary, he declined to participate in a candidate forum held by the Dane County Bar Association and a forum at the Community Brainstorming Conference in Milwaukee, long a required stop for any politicians looking to gain the African American vote. He also declined to answer questions for the story done by Isthmus.
Dallet, meanwhile, has appeared before any groups, including the conservative Federalist Society. She has also announced that as a justice she would recuse herself from any cases involving the liberal group run by former Attorney General Eric Holder, which is spending heavily to support her candidacy.
Dallet worked as a prosecutor for many years, with eight years in the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office and three as assistant attorney for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, followed by 10 years as circuit court judge. In her 21-year career there is no evidence of liberal activism, but rather of a prosecutor and tough-on-crime judge. A story by Gannett found Dallet was one of the harshest judges in the state when it comes to sentencing, rating her as “extremely harsh.” Dallet doesn’t deny this, but notes she has handled some of the state’s toughest cases, serving in courts handling homicide and sexual assault court, domestic violence and child abuse, the gun court and felony drug court.
She has vastly more courtroom experience than Screnock, having have handled more than 10,000 cases as a judge and 300 jury trials as judge or prosecutor.
Yet with her 21 years of court cases, Screnock and his Republican backers have been hard put to prove his claim that Dallet is a liberal activist. They ran one ad blasting Dallet for giving a man convicted of attempted sexual assault of a child a two-year sentence “instead of the maximum 20 years,” while leaving out the fact this was the punishment recommended by the prosecution.
So apparently both sides have been able to cherry pick an ugly sounding case, the difference being that Dallet has probably handled ten times as many cases as her opponent.
Yes, Dallet has offered some liberal sound bites about her values: “I believe in clean air and water, I believe in our public education system and I believe in working people. I think we need to ensure we increase participation in our voting system, not decrease it. I think we need to address racial and gender inequality head on,” she has said. But she has also distinguished between her values and the rule of law, noting she supports “reasonable gun control,” but “I’m not going to write that law, that’s going to be our legislatures.”
While justices have been known to change while serving on a high court, most tend to conform to the record of their past legal career. Dallet’s career has been that of a mainstream prosecutor and judge who has been endorsed by more than 175 judges in Wisconsin. She seems most like the late moderate conservative justice Patrick Crooks, who was tough on crime, but parted with the Wisconsin Supreme Court on key issues like recusal rules and campaign coordination.
As for Screnock, he has already let us know he will emulate Gableman, an aggressively right-wing justice who operated as a rubber stamp for the conservatives who now rule this state. That’s how Screnock operated as a lawyer, and nothing in his campaign has suggested he sees any reason to change.
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