Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge John Siefert feels pretty good about his chances in next spring’s election.
The Branch 47 judge has been on the bench since 1997, so he knows how to get re-elected. But now, he can use the political makeup of Milwaukee to his advantage.
Siefert, a Democrat, and other judicial candidates in the state can for the first time publicly proclaim their political affiliation on the campaign trail, after the judge successfully argued that Wisconsin’s prohibition of judges belonging to political parties was unconstitutional.
To what extent judicial candidates in contested races will highlight their past or present political membership remains to be seen, but Siefert expects that his affiliation in a historically Democratic county will benefit his bid for re-election.
“This is the worst possible year for an opponent to pick to run against me,” he said.
Judicial candidates can identify themselves with a party affiliation in campaign materials and public speeches. They will not be listed on the ballot with a party affiliation.
Party affiliation can help voters identify with non-partisan candidates, said University of Wisconsin Political Science Professor John Coleman, and offer an indication of a candidate’s judicial philosophy.
“For voters who are paying less attention, the party label can signal how they might want to cast their vote, and so it can be useful to a candidate in that way,” he said.
Overall, Siefert doesn’t expect political preference will be a hot topic in the relatively low-profile circuit court races. Where it could make a difference is at the state Supreme Court level, where three candidates are challenging incumbent Justice David T. Prosser.
Prior to joining the Supreme Court in 1998, Prosser spent 18 years as a Republican representative in the State Assembly, a fact the justice said he will embrace as a contribution resource, but not emphasize during the campaign.
Judicial elections in Wisconsin historically generate minimal voter interest, but next spring will also feature non-partisan county executive races in Milwaukee and Dane counties, as well as a mayoral race in Madison.
Despite a surge in support for Republicans this fall, Siefert said that the additional races will motivate voters in those historically Democratic areas to take part in the election and, by nature, cast their ballots for a left-leaning judicial candidate.
“This is very much to Dave Prosser’s disadvantage,” Siefert said. “Majority Republican counties like Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington have very little going on to attract people to the polls.”
Siefert said that Prosser’s Democratic opponents would be wise to publicly contrast their politics with that of the incumbent.
At this point, that isn’t the kind of race Prosser or his opponents want to run.
“This is not a change that I sought in any way and not a change I am particularly eager to take advantage of,” Prosser said. “I would like to run a campaign that is not identified with a party.”
He refuted the notion that politics will or should have a significant impact on the Supreme Court race and he fully expects to carry Milwaukee County and Dane County based on experience and reputation, rather than his political history.
The justice said he has no intention of soliciting voters based on his political past and doubted that his opponents would do so.
“I don’t see it playing out that way,” he said. “In fact if it did, the person running against me would have to make it an issue and I don’t think ethically they can do that.”
Democratic challenger Marla J. Stephens agreed that political affiliation should have no relevance in a judicial election, although she said part of her campaign will contend that partisanship has played a role in some of Prosser’s decisions.
“I feel some of the decisions Prosser has made on changes to the Code of Judicial Conduct and on disciplinary matters signal that he is not able to approach them in a nonpartisan manner,” she said.
Supreme Court challenger Joel B. Winnig grew up a Democrat, but the Madison attorney said he views himself as a progressive and doesn’t plan to make politics an issue during the campaign.
He has ample criticisms of both parties and having a liberal label attached to his campaign could cause voters to get the wrong impression about his judicial philosophy.
“I didn’t go to a bunch of Democrats and say ‘should I do this’?” he said. “I went to people I knew cared about the Supreme Court and the justice system.”
The most recent addition to the race is Assistant Attorney General JoAnne F. Kloppenburg, who said even though candidates and judges have the option of disclosing party affiliation, she doesn’t think they should.
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for judge or candidates to talk about political affiliations because it sends a message to the public that they may prejudge cases,” she said. “I don’t want to do that.”
Jack Zemlicka can be reached at [email protected].