Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Geenen Challenges Walker-Appointed Judge

Bill Brash’s campaign email promises he will be a conservative, links him with Dan Kelly.

By - Mar 28th, 2023 10:53 am
Sara Geenen and Appeals Court Judge William W. Brash, III.

Sara Geenen and Appeals Court Judge William W. Brash, III.

Incumbent judges are seldom challenged and routinely win reelection. But Appeals Court Judge William W. Brash, III could be the exception, his opponent Sara Geenen hopes. Brash was appointed to the District 1 Court of Appeals (covering Milwaukee County) by Gov. Scott Walker and his campaign is backed by conservatives like Republican mega-donor Richard Uihlein,

Dan Morse, Finance Chair for the Brash campaign, wrote an email on February 23 casting the race as a pivotal contest between liberals and conservatives in Milwaukee.

“Bill is a conservative who will follow the law as it is written and will not legislate from the bench,” he wrote. “We need to keep judicial conservatives like Judge Bill Brash, in these all important Court of Appeals seats.”

But his email also says his campaign is about making sure Dan Kelly gets elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. “By creating a strong grass-roots campaign, we will not only re-elect Bill Brash, but we will also turnout the conservative vote, thereby keeping the Supreme Court in conservative hands.”

Brash has tried to distance himself from that email, telling the audience at a candidate forum sponsored by the Milwaukee Bar Association that he didn’t authorize that language used in that email.

Still, Brash has some strong connections to conservative Republicans. His finance chair Morse spent four years as finance director for the state Republican Party and four years as a fundraiser for Scott Walker. His campaign manager Lily Schwenk served as the Youth Outreach and Events Director for Republican Senator Ron Johnson’s reelection campaign.

In his 2015 application to then-Governor Walker seeking an appointment as Appeals Court judge, Brash cited the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling upholding Act 10 as “one of the best United States or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last thirty years,” as the Wisconsin Justice Initiative reported.

Brash received the maximum donation of $6,000 each from both Richard Uihlein and his wife Elizabeth and his fundraising letter on January 30 listed some top Wisconsin conservatives, including Bradley Foundation President Rick Graber, former Bradley President Michael Grebe (both longtime heavyweights in the Republican Party), the highly partisan donor Stephen Einhorn and many North Shore Republicans.

That said his long list of endorsement includes notable liberals like former judges Louis Butler and Joan Kessler and retired Democratic Senator Herb Kohl.

Geenen, meanwhile, has a Democratic background. Before going to law school, Geenen was a field organizer and worked to help elect former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. She also worked for the liberal group One Wisconsin Now and ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the state Assembly in 2014.

Her campaign website notes that Geenen is the daughter of a paper mill worker who was a union activist and she first spent time on a picket line at age five and has gone on to work for 16 years as labor and employment attorney. “It’s my job to help regular people, regular folks vindicate their rights, make their workplaces better to protect their rights at work,” she told forum attendees “I’ve practiced in dozens of courts across the country, administrative bodies, both the state and federal, various administrative agencies.”

A vibrant democracy should assure “that people’s voices are heard,” she declares on her website.” Yet it is this kind of collective action and social participation I fear some jurists seek to squelch. The United States Supreme Court’s decisions in cases like Citizens United, Whitford and Rucho, and Epic Systems, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s majority rationales in the Act 10 and ‘Right to Work’ decisions, exemplify this concern and are a warning.”

By contrast, Brash’s campaign website mentions no cases or issues, but declares “his passion for law, order and justice,” and trumpets his 35 years of experience on the bench, beginning with 12 years as Fox Point municipal judge and “Then moving on to be a Circuit Court Judge in Milwaukee County and then as an Appellate Judge since 2015. He was named the Presiding Judge for District 1 in 2019, and has been the Chief Judge for the Court of Appeals since 2021.”

That standing in the legal community is suggested by his many endorsements. Brash, who did not respond to a request for comment from Urban Milwaukee, has been endorsed by both the police and fire unions and dozens of current and former judges, compared to just four judges for Geenen. But she has a long list of endorsements from elected political officials (Brash lists only Kohl) and from a long list of attorneys, though not as many as Brash lists.

In short, the election is a classic clash between incumbent and challenger, insider vs outsider, and youth (Geenen is 41) vs age (Brash is 71 and should he be reelected would be 77 at the end of his term.)

“I think the appeals court bench could benefit from a diversity of perspectives,” Geenen told Urban Milwaukee. “The youngest member is in his 60’s and the others are all in their 70’s. And I don’t come from the corporate side or government side like the other judges on the court do.”

The one thing both candidate agree on is the importance of the Wisconsin Appeals Courts, which includes 16 judges, from four districts, headquartered in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Wausau and Madison. The state appeals courts were created in the late 1970s and actually handle about 90% of all cases that are appealed, with only about 10% being heard by the the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which can pick and choose the cases it considers.

Appeals court judges are elected to six-year terms in district-wide, non-partisan April elections. After his appointment to the bench, Brash has run only once for election, in 2017, and was unopposed. This time he has opposition and the race doesn’t seem so nonpartisan.

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