Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Strange Race for Supreme Court

Look carefully. Both candidates are not what they claim to be.

By - Mar 27th, 2018 12:21 pm
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Rebecca Dallet and Michael Screnock.

Rebecca Dallet and Michael Screnock.

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 is apparently a devout Christian, who got his masters in administration from a small Christian school in Philadelphia, worked 12 years in municipal government in small Wisconsin towns like Washburn and Ashland and then began attending law school after he and his wife prayed about it for a year, as he told the Journal Sentinel.

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.

And Dallet’s campaign struck back with an ad noting a case where Screnock sentenced a man to just eight months in jail and two years on probation for fourth degree sexual assault. The criminal complaint alleged that the 24-year-old defendant “plied two teenage girls with alcohol and had sex with one of them, age 16, as she repeatedly told him ‘No’”, as Lueders reported. “Screnock also sentenced Axel R. Conrad to five years on probation and no jail time for ‘repeated sexual assault of [a] child’” though the crime was ‘punishable by up to 40 years in prison,” Lueders noted.

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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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

16 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Strange Race for Supreme Court”

  1. WashCoRepub says:

    I’m having increasing difficulty distinguishing Murphy’s columns from actual press releases from One Wisconsin Now, Democratic Party of Wisconsin, etc. I suppose he needs to be looking ahead and lining up his next job… can’t blame him for that.

  2. Terry says:

    @WashCoRepug, Do you have anything germane to the article to comment on or are you really just here to personally attack the fine, clearly unbiased work of Mr. Bruce Murphy? Newsflash for all you hate and anger filled old white guy republicans! Attacking the messenger won’t work anymore. Why don’t you stop crying, whining, complaining, stop attacking and blaming others for your issues in life, get off the couch, take some personal responsibilty and make a positive contribution to society. Oh yeah back to the subject at hand, Dallet may not be perfect but she is a million times more qualified and much more ethical than the corporate special interest and NRA funded partisan republican hack Screnock.

    Vote Dallet April 3rd, 2018
    The Big Blue Wave is building republicans! It’s going to build and build until it washes all you corrupt republican liarsvand schemers away in November!

  3. Hammer says:

    @WashCoRepub He lays down concrete points, Schernok sounds like a partisan hack and a Christian wackjob. That’s the last type of person WI needs on the Supreme Court. I know you’re too much of a hack to vote to a neutral candidate for the Court, but whatever happened to the conservative movement utilizing conservationism? This guy is legit destroying Wisconsin’s environment and will pass down decisions with heavy political bias. No thanks.

  4. Jake currently of the MKE says:

    So the negative confirms that Scrotum is a conservative activist judge NRA antiabortion terrorist.

  5. PMD says:

    Says the guy who gushes over every single press release from Walker, Schimel, GOP legislators, etc. You really shouldn’t talk about press releases at all. You are a sycophant and the way you heap praise on press releases here is embarrassing. It’s almost like you get paid to do it. No one is that excited about a press release.

    Also, you didn’t elaborate because you can’t. Everything Bruce states is factual. If you had a specific objection, you would have said so. Instead the best you’ve got is some half-hearted insult about Bruce lining up his next job.

  6. Guy4Life says:

    Not sure if you guy’s read the article or just WashCoRepub posts because thats all you comment on.

  7. Actually I credit Bruce with creating some balance. In normal times, Dallet is precisely the sort of judge everyone asks for, not soft on criminals but reasonable to arguments about judicial abuse of ethics.

  8. blurondo says:

    “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.)”

    Non-partisan: “not supporting or controlled by a political party, special interest group, or the like.” Dictionary.com

  9. Eric J. says:

    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,

    -Would be difficult to overlook this man’s past work history. Don’t see him turning around to become an environmentalist.

    Dallet’s the one.

  10. Timothy J Haering says:

    Bruce, this is a more thorough and honest analysis than either candidate deserves. We are stuck with one of these. In this case, I apply a Denny Shook analysis. I miss Denny. I imagine he would argue for Dallet ‘cause she’s hot, for a mother of 3. And I’d have to agree. Is that so wrong? I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.

  11. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    A story that’s emerged between the lines in the last few days is that Screnock’s campaign is broke – he only had $64,000 in the bank with 2 weeks left. WISGOP and WMC have become Screnock’s campaign, so why would he be anything BUT a rubber-stamp for every unconstitutional and exploitative act they put together.

    Good rundown, Bruce. My only quibble is this – Why is wanting clean air and water, good public education, strong,voting rights, and addressing gender and racial equality “liberal values”? Seems to be something that should be above politics. That it’s not should tell you how far out there WISGOP and WMC truly are, and the type of hacks they want to put on courts reflects that.

    On qualifications and ethics, Dallet is the hands-down choice, and we all need to do our part on April 3 to begin to Drain the Swamp in Madison.

  12. John says:

    Point is Rebecca Dallet about who she was. Screnock has stayed the same since day one. Dallet said she was unbiased, but then has been taped in San Francisco saying she wants their values to become ours. The author says Dallet has been tough on crime, but he’s counting on you to take him at face value because if you search Rebecca Dallet going easy on criminals you will find many times she went easy on criminals. One in particular in 2011, a man by the name of Donald Bruce Skenandore pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual assault for sexually assaulting an 8 year old for 6 years. A 13 year old assault was dismissed but read in. He skipped court dates, then once caught let out on signature bond. He skipped another court date and Sheriffs caught him at a church block party by kids. This pedophile faced 90 years in prison upon conviction,” former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke told the Journal Sentinel at the time. “In a plea bargain, he faced 30 years in prison after pleading no contest. Why would any public servant allow Skenandore to be free without bail to roam Milwaukee neighborhoods where children play?” Dallet gave him 2 years and her excuse? That the sexual assault wasn’t that bad because their was no sexual intercourse.
    In 2012 she gave Nick Fuchs a light sentence for sexual assault of his gfs children.
    In 2013 she gave Teara Stewart a light sentence for child neglect. Her kids were beaten with a belt and electrical cord and starved to the point the 2 year old kid was just 20 pounds when found.
    Do your homework people and don’t ltake anyone at face value. The only argument I’m seeing in this comments section are just personally attacks. No respectable debate. It’s just labeling Screnock’s supporters with something derogatory so that no one will listen to what they have to say and doing it repeatedly. It’s a form of manipulation called “gaslighting.” Look it up people! I’m open to debate, but please refrain from name calling. That’s so childish.

  13. PMD says:

    Do your homework. Good advice. If you do you will discover that Screnock has also given ridiculously light sentences to people convicted of sexual assault. They include:

    -Probation for a man who repeatedly sexually assaulted a 14-year-old.

    -8 months in jail for a man who raped a minor.

    So are those just as egregious John? Also, I said it before and I’ll say it again. If Dallet had ever been arrested, the attack ads against her would be running nonstop. Especially is she said she didn’t regret it. You need to take your own advice John.

  14. Bill Kurtz says:

    John, less than 10 percent of the cases that reach the Supreme Court are criminal cases, so WMC’s Willie Horton-type ads to demonize the candidates they oppose aren’t even very relevant. WMC’s own website said they sponsor ads to help elect justices friendly to business interests. But a lot of pro-business positions aren’t very popular, so they try to portray corporate shills as the reincarnation of Christ Seraphim to try to pick up extra votes.

  15. Thomas says:

    I agree with the assertion in post # 7 that the Murphy piece is balanced. That post also suggests that Dallet is balanced. Every indicator I have seen suggests that Screnock is unbalanced. This is serious, folks: the WI Supreme Court needs some balance.

  16. Lee Bitts says:

    So – who are TIm Burns’ voters likely to turn to?

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