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Voters to narrow Supreme Court candidate field (UPDATE)

David Prosser

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin has spent the last few weeks focused on the Green Bay Packers and Gov. Scott Walker, but a fight has been brewing in the background that could also significantly impact the state: the state Supreme Court primary.

The outcome could shift the political leaning of the state’s highest court, yet Tuesday’s election is expected to draw only a fraction of the state’s voters.

The Supreme Court’s seven justices are officially nonpartisan, but they’ve still divided themselves into conservative and liberal factions. Conservative-leaning justices hold a 4-3 majority on the court.

Justice David Prosser, considered among the court’s conservatives, has been quietly sparring with three more liberal lawyers who want his job. Although unlikely, a Prosser loss on Tuesday would hand the court’s liberal-leaning bloc the majority, a crucial factor in cases ranging from criminal appeals to pollution violations.

“If he should happen to lose tomorrow, then yes, that dramatically shifts the balance on the court. Any of the opponents would be closer to the liberal wing of the court, certainly compared to Prosser,” University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin said Monday.

“But that would be a real surprise given the history of judicial elections.”

The primary features a four-way struggle between Prosser, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, public defender Marla Stephens and family law attorney Joel Winnig. Voters will pick two of them to advance to the April 5 general election. The winner of that contest gets a 10-year term on the court.

Most spring primaries are low-profile affairs, and this one even more so since public attention has largely been focused in recent weeks on the Packers’ Super Bowl run and Walker’s plan to strip most public workers of almost all their collective bargaining rights.

Election officials predict only about 10 percent of the state’s eligible voters will bother casting a ballot on Tuesday, despite forecasts for generally sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 30s.

Whatever the outcome, the primary race has shown that the state’s new public campaign financing for Supreme Court races appears to be working, said University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee, himself a former Democratic state senator.

State lawmakers created the plan after critics complained special interests were pouring too much money into Supreme Court races and wielding too much influence over the court’s decisions. The bill’s opponents have filed federal lawsuits challenging the law, saying it limits free speech.

Anxious to distances themselves from criticism that they would serve as special interest puppets, Kloppenburg, Prosser and Winnig all applied for public money and agreed to limit their own fundraising and spending. Stephens was the only candidate who didn’t apply. She said she wanted to have enough money to defender herself from her opponents’ attacks.

But the candidates have been careful to keep the tone of the race civil. They want to distance themselves from the bitter infighting that has consumed the court since Michael Gableman defeated Justice Louis Butler in 2008, which gave the conservatives the majority.

That race saw Gableman run a contentious ad that accused Butler of using a loophole to free a rapist who went on to rape again. Butler did win the man a new trial when Butler was a public defender, but the Supreme Court overturned that decision and the man served his full prison term before he was released and reoffended.

“What’s so fascinating about what’s going on is this is a dry-run for campaign finance reform,” Lee said. “This is the under-the-microscope specimen for ‘can it work?’ I think it is. For every Wisconsinite who muttered under his breath about these awful political ads, that were mud-throwing … it appears the campaign financing appears to be holding that back.”

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