“Additionally, we will challenge Judge Brunner to join us in our commitment to ask all PACs not to make any positive or negative campaign ads.”
Hon. Patience Roggensack
Throughout the race for state Supreme Court, Barron County Circuit Court Judge Ed Brunner has challenged his opponents to pledge not to take donations from political action committees (PACs).
Friday, District IV Court of Appeals Judge Pat Roggensack accepted that challenge and issued one of her own.
"I have come to recognize that it has the potential and indeed it has in the past stifled discussion of the true issue in this race, which is which one of the two candidates possesses the skills to enable the Supreme Court to better serve the public," Roggensack said.
As a result, Roggensack told a forum at the State Bar Center that she would agree not to accept PAC contributions. However, the appellate judge offered her own challenge.
"Additionally, we will challenge Judge Brunner to join us in our commitment to ask all PACs not to make any positive or negative campaign ads," she said.
Later in the discussion, Roggensack discussed the challenges that candidates face from independent advertisements.
"Those are very difficult because they come at the end of the race," she said. "The candidate has no money to respond and no notice that they are coming."
Brunner did not immediately respond to the challenge. During the first forum question, which pertained to campaign funds, he noted that the candidates do not have any control over what other groups decided to do.
"Asking me now to say that we will advise other groups out there, whoever they may be, not to make independent expenditures, I don’t know that we have any control over that," Brunner said.
Eventually, Brunner accepted Roggensack’s challenge to ask citizen groups not to run issue ads during the campaign. However, Brunner followed that concession with one more challenge that Roggensack agree to spending limits of $215,000.
“It levels the playing field. If we don’t do something along those lines, all we will have is the wealthiest people serving in the high positions of government.”
Hon. Edward Brunner
First Meeting Following Primary
The discussion took place Friday during a forum sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin, Wispolitics.com and WTDY AM1670 at the State Bar Center. Neil Heinen, news director at WISC-TV in Madison, moderated the discussion. Heinen noted that campaign funding and PAC contributions were the top issues raised in questions submitted at the forum.
During the discussion Brunner said that he has supported the creation of an impartial justice bill for several years. He pointed to one component that would be necessary for the success of any public funding proposal.
"You can’t have public funding without also having spending limits," Brunner said. "Other-wise, persons who do not choose to take public funding will be able to spend their own money and we will end up with a judiciary of only the economic elite."
Roggensack responded by indicating her support for public financing.
"I think full public financing is really important in judicial races," Roggensack said. However, she noted that concern about PAC money influencing judicial decisions was no longer an issue in this race.
As for Brunner’s new $215,000 spending cap challenge, which came at the end of the discussion, Roggensack did not comment during the forum. During interviews after the forum, Roggensack referred to the is
sue of spending caps as a diversionary tactic. She noted that there was a difference between concerns about PAC money tainting the election process and the imposition of spending limits, which only serves to limit communication.
"I believe that amount of money is insufficient to communicate to those citizens who live in less populous areas of the state," Roggensack said. "What you do is you shut down all communication except for something like this a forum."
During an interview following the forum, Brunner noted that he was able to garner 33 percent of the votes in the Feb. 18 primary while spending the least amount of money of the three candidates. He said candidates could reach people even without spending a great deal of money.
"You can reach people, but it’s a lot harder," Brunner said. "It’s easier to sit back and buy ads on radio and television. But I don’t know if that’s really getting your message out when you talk for 15 seconds or 30 seconds on a TV spot."
Shifting the Issues
Brunner balked at the notion that he was engaging in some sleight of hand by moving from the discussion of PAC contributions to asking for spending limits. He stated that he did not have the personal wealth to draw upon that Roggensack could. The stipulation that they ask groups not to run independent advertisements further ties his hands, when he had no way of competing financially, he explained.
"If we want this race to be honest and straight-forward with the people, then what we ought to do is set a spending limit and leave it at that," Brunner said. "It levels the playing field. If we don’t do something along those lines, all we will have is the wealthiest people serving in the high positions of government.
Roggensack indicated that she had contributed money to her campaign to help pay for the radio and television time necessary to communicate with the public.
"It’s very, very hard to raise money for judicial races," Roggensack said. "Because I believe it is important, I have spent some of my own money on my judicial campaign."
Getting to Know the Candidates
Other questions raised during the forum dealt with issues ranging from the kinds of endorsements candidates have received so far to potential racial inequities in the justice system. At one point, Heinen asked the candidates to explain how the endorsements they have received should be interpreted.
Roggensack, Brunner take
District IV Court of Appeals Judge Pat Roggensack and Barron County Circuit Court Judge Ed Brunner have advanced into the final stretch of the race for state Supreme Court.
Roggensack took home 39 percent of the votes in the Feb. 18 primary election and Brunner gathered 33 percent. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Paul Higginbotham came in third with 28 percent.
Roggensack, 62, said she and her supporters had anticipated a strong showing in the primary election.
"We hoped that we would come out in first place and we did," she told the Wisconsin Law Journal. "I think we were very pleased with the results."
Brunner, 55, said he also was very pleased by his strong second-place showing. He credited the early start on the campaign trail for much of the success. He began gathering support for the race one year ago.
"I think it was absolutely critical for someone who was not very well known in the circles in Madison, Milwaukee and the southern part of the state," Brunner said during an interview.
Higginbotham, 48, who entered the race in January, acknowledged that his late start affected his position in the primary. He indicated that his campaign had been building momentum and could have overcome the gap it hed had six more weeks.
"Im just so confident that if we had just a little more time we would have gone over the top because we were so close," Higginbotham said.
He cited strong support for his message about "the court being about the people."
"Wherever we went, people were very excited about what we were talking about," Higginbotham said.
The Race Continues
Roggensack indicated that her biggest challenge would be getting the public to understand the difference between her background as an appellate judge and Brunners background as a trial court judge.
"The difference that I bring is something that is really lacking on the court and is something that will help it to serve the public so much better if we can just add that missing component," Roggensack said.
She observed that the majority of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have come from the federal court of appeals. Thats compared with the state Supreme Court, which does not have any former court of appeals judges on it.
"I dont know why we havent done it in Wisconsin," she said.
Brunner continues to see campaign finance as a key issue in the race something which Roggensack has repeatedly dismissed. Brunner said he believes the electorate supports the idea of judicial elections "that are reasonably funded by citizens" rather than bought by candidates with large coffers.
Brunner also is trying to position himself as a moderate in the race, while painting Roggensack as a conservative. One of his strategies prior to the April 1 election is to gather as much support as he can from the voters who were behind Higginbotham.
"Obviously, what I have to do is work with Judge Higginbotham, who is supporting me and many of the people who were supporting him and bring that 28 percent, his [77,500] voters over to my side," Brunner said.
Roggensack challenged the notion that Brunner would pick up all of Higginbothams supporters. She noted that there were many reasons they supported the Dane County judge and they would not necessarily shift their support as a solid block.
"I dont think Judge Brunner should … think that automatically those people are his supporters because they supported Judge Higginbotham," she said.
As for Higginbothams next step, he said that he plans to focus on work and family. However, he did not rule out the idea of looking toward the high court in the future.
"Theres still a lot of enthusiasm for me to get on the court sometime," he said. "Right now, my focus is being a circuit court judge full time, being a daddy and being a husband."
Roggensack indicated that she has received some strong bipartisan support. Although nearly all of the elected officials supporting her come from the Republican party, Roggensack noted that there are leaders from the legal community, who are perceived to be more liberal, supporting her campaign.
"If you look at the other people that support me, they are every bit as important as elected officials," she said. "People like John Skilton, Dan Hildebrand, Jack DeWitt, all from our community, all strong in their Democratic persuasion."
Brunner pointed to a large list of supporters from the judiciary. He attributed his success in the primary election to that support.
"One of the reasons that I surprised so many people and won was the two-thirds of the state’s judges who endorsed me," he said. "And they come from a broad political spectrum. I can point to Harold Froehlich who was a Republican congressman before he became a judge in Outagamie County."
Posing another audience question, Heinen asked the candidates their thoughts on the value of restorative justice to the state.
Roggensack noted that when you can get victims and offenders to sit down together to talk about the dramatic effect the offender’s actions have had on the victim, that can be an effective tool for breaking cycles of illegal behavior.
"I believe that recidivism rates for those people has gone down," Roggensack said. "I think we are all in favor of anything that would lower recidivism rates."
She said there are problems attempting to transfer programs like that from Barron County with a relatively low population to a county like Milwaukee with a high population density. She also noted that it is more of a trial court program than something the Supreme Court would be actively involved with.
Brunner, who has been very active with restorative justice in Barron County, noted that it was not just limited victim-offender conferencing. He also challenged the notion that it was limited to small c
"It’s not a program," Brunner said. "It’s a new way of thinking about the justice system as opposed to a retributory system."
It looks at crime as a harm to the community, which needs to be healed, Brunner said. He pointed to other elements of restorative justice including victim-impact panels and restorative discipline in the school systems.
"Granted it’s not something that would occur on the Supreme Court," he said. "The Supreme Court wouldn’t be engaged in restorative justice programs. But it’s a way of thinking of our whole justice system, which is a change from the way we thought of things in the past."
A Question of Fairness
Another question dealt with handling issues of fairness in the justice system across racial lines.
Roggensack indicated that "the law should be colorblind." She acknowledged several studies around the country looking at whether African Americans are treated differently from people of other races for committing the same crime.
"That’s what we need to start with," Roggensack said. "In other words, is the old saying true, If it’s a white kid, he gets counseling and if it’s an African American kid he goes to Wales.’"
She noted that the chief justice has created a group to start looking at that complex issue.
"You have to know first of all, is there a disparity in the way sentences are handed down based on race," Roggensack said. "If there is, there certainly should not be.
That would be a clear message that the Supreme Court could send down."
The other element would be determining if there are more crimes committed by one race than another and what factors would be contributing to that, she said.
Brunner indicated that this is a problem, which needs to be addressed.
"We haven’t done enough about it, particularly in the justice system where we have dodged the issue," Brunner said.
He recalled the efforts of the Barland Commission following the implementation of truth-in-sentencing and the changes which followed in an effort to make sense of that legislation. That commission found clear evidence of inequity in the treatment of people based on race.
"When we are talking about sentencing and how sentencing should be applied and sentencing guidelines, I think those are the types of issues that the Supreme Court could help with," Brunner said. "I think it is something that this court needs to address. I would suggest to my colleagues and to the chief justice that a commission be established specifically to take a look at this."
Friday’s forum was the first meeting of Roggensack and Brunner since the Feb. 18 primary election. At that point the field of candidates was reduced from three to two. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Paul Higginboth-am came in third place in that election.
Tony Anderson can be reached by email.