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Challengers push for Wis. Supreme Court personality change

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — An attorney known for outlandish satirical videos and provocative statements, a law professor with an expertise in complicated corporate litigation and an incumbent justice are trying to capture voters’ attention in the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Justice Pat Roggensack, lemon law attorney Vince Megna, and Marquette University law professor Ed Fallone are pursuing the 10-year term on the state’s highest court. One of them will be eliminated in the Feb. 19 primary. The two highest vote-getters advance to the April 2 general election.

The race for the nonpartisan office has been marked by Megna trying to politicize it, both Megna and Fallone arguing the court is dysfunctional and needs to change, and Roggensack saying she’s far more qualified than her challengers.

Recent races for the state’s highest court have been expensive, ugly affairs with outside money dominating the airwaves. Spending in the past four Supreme Court races have averaged about $5 million each, with an average of about $3 million in each coming from outside groups.

This year’s race hasn’t seen outside money yet, and the candidates themselves have raised and spent little so far. But that hasn’t stopped Megna from generating buzz.

He declared himself to be a Democrat, even though the race is officially nonpartisan and candidates aren’t identified by party on the ballot. Megna calls that a charade. He also took stands on some issues that could come before the court, including his opposition to photo ID for voters and his support for gay rights.

Megna insists his views wouldn’t affect his decisions on court cases.

“I would absolutely assess the case based on the argument,” Megna said. “There’s no doubt in my mind there. I don’t like guns. I wish guns were banned in the world. I wish there was no gun. But I understand if a case comes to me on guns, there’s a guaranteed right under the Second Amendment to have guns. I’m not going to change that, I don’t have the power to change it.”

Both Roggensack and Fallone reject Megna’s calls to politicize the race.

“I think that already the general public has come to view our state Supreme Court as deciding cases based on political ideology,” Fallone said. “I think that’s unfortunate. I think that diminishes faith in the judiciary.”

Roggensack said taking stands on issues that could come before the court would give the appearance that candidates are prejudging them.

Megna has also refused to back away from several satirical videos he posted online before he got in the race. The videos, which mostly make fun of Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans, include foul language, Megna walking around the Capitol grounds in clown shoes, and profane gestures directed at lawmakers during a public hearing.

“I think people can tell they’re satirical and I think some people might be offended by them,” Megna said. “I’m not going to get a huge Republican crossover vote, anyway.”

Megna also wrote a 2006 book, “Lap Dancers Don’t Take Checks,” that features him on the cover standing behind a topless woman lying face down on a table next to the scales of justice weighed down with stacks of cash.

Both Fallone and Megna argue that Roggensack doesn’t deserve another term because of how the court has operated in recent years.

In the most highly publicized incident, Justice David Prosser placed his hands around the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in 2011. Prosser said he was making a defensive move, but charges have been brought against him alleging that he violated the judicial ethics code. Roggensack and two other justices have recused themselves from his case. Roggensack often sides with Prosser and two other conservative justices on cases, making up a conservative majority on the seven-member court.

In another sign of discord, Prosser called Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a derogatory name in 2010 in front of other justices.

Megna and Fallone say Roggensack should be replaced for the court to function better.

“They have a duty to us, to the people, to become a better court, to become friendly, to be cordial,” Megna said.

Fallone — who announced Friday he has been endorsed by Congresswomen Gwen Moore, former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, and former U.S. Congressman Dave Obey — said he is running because the court is in crisis and he owes it to the state and the legal profession to improve it.

“The mere fact of changing the personalities of the court would cause the remaining justices to deal with one another,” Fallone said.

Roggensack said the election is about her, not the Supreme Court as a whole. Even so, she said the court can do a better job reassuring the public that justices will not allow any differences in opinion to rise to the level of the Prosser-Bradley altercation.

“It breaks my heart,” she said of that incident. “It has made the court, as an institution, diminished.”

Still, Roggensack said the justices agree more often than not and get along better than people realize.

“We are not a tremendously fractured court,” she said.

Roggensack’s key argument is that as a judge with 10 years’ experience on the Supreme Court, and seven prior to that on the state appeals court, she is by far the most qualified for the job.

“To do this job and do it thoroughly you should have been a judge before you become a justice,” Roggensack said.

But Megna and Fallone argue they would bring valuable experience to the court.

Megna said he’s the only candidate looking out for the average person and he’s built his career as a lemon law attorney, filing lawsuits against car manufacturers and dealers on behalf of customers who have purchased faulty vehicles. “A justice for all” is his campaign slogan.

“Not being a judge isn’t going to be a big issue in my case,” Megna said. “I think that I’ve given much more for them to attack than not being a judge.”

Fallone said the state’s highest court should have a broad range of experience.

Both Fallone and Megna expect to be outspent by Roggensack. She was the first of the three candidates on the air with a television ad that started Feb. 7.

Megna has been operating on a shoestring budget and even told donors to hold off giving him anything until after the primary, just in case he doesn’t advance. Fallone said he’s meeting his fundraising goals and has netted some big endorsements from teacher and labor unions, traditional backers of Democrats.

Roggensack is endorsed by Milwaukee police and firefighter unions and more than 50 county sheriffs.

Wis. Supreme Court candidates answer questions

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The Associated Press asked each of the three candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court for their responses in 130 words or less to the same five questions in advance of the Feb. 19 primary. What follows are their unedited responses.

Question: Do you believe the state Supreme Court is functioning as well as it can and, if not, what are your plans for improving it?

Ed Fallone: The Supreme Court is dysfunctional. Productivity is down, the justices don’t get along and people are losing faith that the court is an independent institution free from the influence of politics. My law school colleague former Justice Jeanine Geske told me that if you change one face, you change the whole court. If I am elected I will be the independent justice that Wisconsin needs to restore our courts’ reputation. I will be able to consider the arguments of the cases before the court without all the baggage that the court currently has. I would put aside the politics of the issues before the court and rule based on the arguments presented by the lawyers. I would never walk into a hearing with a decision made beforehand.

Vince Megna: It’s indisputable the current court is dysfunctional, with the recent behavior of some of the justices an embarrassment to Wisconsin and the progressive legacy of the state. Voters need to have confidence in the work of the justices and that’s not something they have now. Imagine waiting five years for your case to be heard, only to have justices who are at each other’s throat – figuratively and literally – making that decision. My consumer advocacy work has taught me the power of compassion, fair reasoning and dogged determination to do the right thing. Those are traits needed to bring civility and decency back to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Pat Roggensack: The Supreme Court continues to release most of its opinions in June. This is largely due to long standing procedures by which opinions progress from the internal circulation of the first draft until the opinion is mandated. I have been working with my colleagues since I came on the court to improve our case processing procedures. We have made some progress in this regard but more can be done. The manner in which the Supreme Court handles rules petitions also needs to be improved. We are working through various suggestions about how to manage this task more efficiently.

Question: What would you bring to the Supreme Court that your challengers do not?

Fallone: I would be the first Latino elected to the court. My heritage as the son of immigrants informs the way I see how the law should function for working families striving for the American dream. For example, I helped to get Centro Legal off its feet in Milwaukee. Centro Legal is a nonprofit organization that provides free and low cost legal services to working families. Additionally, I am an expert in white-collar crime and corporate law. I have represented businesses and shareholders in complex securities litigation. I have been a practicing business attorney for over 25 years and I understand that the best thing a court can be for a healthy business climate is to be independent and consistent. The court now, makes rulings with multiple opinions that leave the law muddier than when they found it.

Megna: The perspective of the average person. For 23 years I have represented average people, working class people, poor people. I have never represented a large corporation or the state. I am not a politician disguised as a judge or a professor who represents big corporations in his side job. I will have the spirit of the ordinary citizens with me every day in fairly interpreting the law as a Supreme Court justice.

Roggensack: I am the only candidate with judicial experience. A large part of the job of a Supreme Court justice is to decide whether a judge in another Wisconsin court properly applied the law. I have the best opportunity to make that call correctly because for nearly 17 years I have worked as a judge. Also, the Supreme Court hears cases involving all areas of the law – child support, property division, workers compensation claims, fair employment claims, insurance questions, children in need of protection and services, termination of parental rights, all areas of criminal law – to name just a few. My seven years as a court of appeals judge gave me experience in all substantive areas and the more than 9 years I have spent on the Supreme Court have increased that experience.

Question: Why are you running for the Supreme Court?

Fallone: All Wisconsin families deserve equal justice before the law. Our court is dysfunctional and influenced by politics and special interests. The court is unproductive, it holds its administrative meetings behind closed doors and people have lost faith that it is independent of politics and special interests. I will be a positive force on the court to restore its reputation. Re-electing Justice Roggensack will do nothing to move the court in the right direction. The best way to get our court back on track is to make a change in its membership. I care deeply about this state and I want to help make our Supreme Court work for the people again.

Megna: Our Supreme Court has been bought and paid for by outside influences. I’m speaking of the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity and other conservative advocacy groups. Our court is a rubber stamp for the Republicans. How does this serve the ordinary people of Wisconsin? Where is their voice on the court? David Koch has a voice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It’s time the people of Wisconsin have a voice. I will be that voice.

Roggensack: I am running for re-election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to continue to serve the people of Wisconsin by assuring that all facets of the legal issues presented for review are fully explored in a fair and even-handed way and to facilitate the Supreme Court’s more efficient and timely service of the public. I am also seeking re-election because I love my job.

Question: Do you believe races for the state Supreme Court should be partisan, with candidates stating their positions on issues of the day, including ones that the court may be asked to decide on?

Fallone: A justice needs to have the courage to be independent of political pressure. A candidate for justice would have to recuse herself or himself, should they be elected, for taking a position on an issue ahead of time. We need to get partisan politics out of the decisions on the Supreme Court. We can’t continue to have a court where justices appear to have an agenda other than protecting the individual liberties and rights under our constitution from the overreach of the political branches of government regardless of the party in charge.

Megna: I’m not sure Supreme Court races can be non-partisan. They certainly are not non-partisan. They are only called non-partisan in order to further the charade. I am surprised by the number of influential people who perpetuate this lie. I find it an insult. Voters have the right to ask questions of Supreme Court candidates. Candidates have a moral obligation to answer those questions truthfully. If a voter asks, “How do you feel about guns, gay marriage, voter ID, abortion?” and that candidate refuses to give honest answers, he or she should not be a candidate or justice. It is one thing to not comment on a particular case that is before the court. But it is another thing altogether to claim to have no opinion or belief about anything when asked.

Roggensack: Wisconsin judicial elections are conducted on a nonpartisan basis by statutory directive. Some states do conduct judicial elections as partisan elections; however, I like the bipartisan support that I have developed due to our nonpartisan elections. I do not think it is wise to discuss issues that are or may come before the court. It will appear that the candidate is prejudging them. However, the legal issues that the Supreme Court reviews are very complicated and should not be resolved without careful study and discussions among the justices.

Question: Would you support replacing elections to the Supreme Court with appointments, either by the governor or some other person or entity?

Fallone: Wisconsin’s tradition of electing judges is rooted in our desire to have justices that understand what issues affect working families and businesses in Wisconsin. I have enjoyed traveling the state talking to people and hearing from them about what they want in a Supreme Court justice. Resoundingly they want someone independent who is not beholden to special interests nor has the appearance of someone who will rubber stamp a political agenda.

Megna: I do not support replacing Supreme Court elections with appointments by the governor. That would only result in Republican governors appointing Republicans and Democratic governors appointing Democrats. Governors will appoint individuals committed to their agenda and judicial and political philosophy. That’s exactly how it works now at the circuit court or appellate court level when a judge retires, dies or for some other reason steps down before his or her term ends. The governor appoints a judge who falls in line politically. For the same reasons, I am also very leery of an “entity” making appointments. I say let the people decide. But let’s stop outside influence and billionaires from buying seats on the court.

Roggensack: I favor judicial elections conducted on a nonpartisan basis for at least three reasons. First, the constitutional provision that requires elections was given a lot of study and thought before enactment; second, Wisconsin voters get a broader selection of candidates from which to choose with nonpartisan elections because the candidates are not required to have any connection with the sitting governor, a political party, or some other group who will do the selection; third, I trust the voters, who generally have done a good job of judicial selection over the years.

— Associated Press

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