Associated Press Writer
MILWAUKEE (AP) — With Wisconsin’s Supreme Court expected to take on a case that came out of Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to curb collective bargaining rights for public workers, a debate between a justice seeking re-election and a prosecutor challenging him for the seat quickly turned to impartiality Monday.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg began talking about the issue in their opening statements during a debate at Marquette University. Each accused the other of not being able to act independently.
Prosser, a former Republican lawmaker, said he would provide “moderate sound judgment” for the next 10-year term, while Kloppenburg said she would be impartial, independent and fair.
“I, unlike my opponent, will approach cases with an open mind and without having prejudice on the matters that come before the court,” she said. “I, unlike my opponent, will move the court forward, away from partisan and personal quarrels.”
While there was no explicit mention of a Dane County judge’s decision to issue an emergency order to block the state’s contentious new collective bargaining law, Prosser acknowledged the attacks against him on Klopperburg’s Facebook page were from people hoping to elect someone to decide “cases that come out of the governor’s budget bill.”
Democratic Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne asked for the emergency order in a lawsuit filed last week. The suit alleges that Republican legislative leaders violated the state’s open meeting law during debate on the proposal and Secretary of State Doug La Follette should therefore be barred from publishing the law. Publication is the last step before a law can take effect in Wisconsin.
On Monday, the state Justice Department asked an appeals court to lift the order.
Kloppenburg’s supporters have criticized Prosser for a December news release from his campaign, announcing his new campaign manager Brian Nemoir. Nemoir is quoted as saying the campaign would “act as a common sense compliment to both the new administration and legislature.”
Prosser disavowed the release and said he didn’t see it before it went out. He said his campaign manager called Kloppenburg’s campaign to disavow the statement but her campaign has repeatedly attributed it to Prosser.
Prosser said Kloppenburg is responsible for the comments on her Facebook page and should take them down. He said the nature of the comments raises questions about whether she can impartially decide any cases that come before her with the budget bill. He mentioned one that read, “Stop the turd, vote Kloppenburg.”
“Now am I the turd or is the governor the turd?” he said to laughs from the audience. “Either I am being sort of dissed or she is committing herself to vote in a particular way on a particular case. That’s totally inappropriate.”
Kloppenburg said the people who post the comments are responsible for the content and that the postings aren’t untrue.
“They understand that it is so important to have an independent and impartial court,” she said of the people posting on her Facebook site.
The race is officially nonpartisan, but Prosser is still seen as part of a four-justice conservative majority on the court. A Kloppenburg victory would tilt the court left, which would sway how the court rules on a wide range of cases — and perhaps determine the ultimate fate of the collective bargaining legislation. The election is April 5.
Prosser and Kloppenburg both have agreed to take public campaign dollars, limiting the amount they can spend and leveling the playing field. Prosser, though, is a formidable opponent. A former state Assembly speaker, he has spent 12 years as a justice and has name recognition. Incumbent justices rarely lose re-election — although Michael Gableman did defeat Justice Louis Butler in a bruising campaign in 2008.
Kloppenburg has been a litigator and prosecutor at the Wisconsin Department of Justice since 1989. Prosser was appointed to the court in 1998 and elected to a 10-year term in 2001.