By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Justice Ann Walsh Bradley won re-election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday, handily defeating Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley and conservatives who wanted to increase their majority on the officially nonpartisan court.
Bradley rolled up nearly 60 percent of the vote based on unofficial returns. Her victory came as voters were also deciding an amendment that could end the 126-year-old practice of having the most senior member of the court serve as chief justice. The race on that question was much closer, with support for the amendment narrowly ahead of opposition with a little over 60 percent of precincts reporting. Opponents say the Republican-backed effort is designed to oust liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson from the post she’s held since 1996.
Bradley and Abrahamson make up the liberal minority on the court that in recent years has been at the center of the some of the biggest political fights in the state, including upholding Gov. Scott Walker’s law effectively ending collective bargaining for public workers.
Daley described himself as a conservative and he actively courted Republican voters, and accepted donations from the GOP party, in his failed attempt at knocking off Bradley. She argued that Daley was politicizing the race; he said Bradley should be removed because she is at the center of a dysfunctional court.
“I think the message was loud and clear to keep partisan politics out of the judiciary,” Bradley told The Associated Press after her victory. “People in this state want a judiciary that’s nonpartisan. Political parties have agendas.”
The court’s four-justice conservative majority and Abrahamson and Bradley have bickered openly for years. Emails emerged in 2011 that revealed conservative-leaning Justice David Prosser, a former Republican state Assembly speaker, vowing to “destroy” Abrahamson. Prosser also acknowledged to police that he wrapped his hands around Bradley’s throat after she charged him during an argument in chambers that same year.
Steve Hegge, a 63-year-old retired accountant from Sun Prairie, said he voted for Daley because Bradley is too political and her close association with Abrahamson proves she’s a liberal.
“It wasn’t what appealed to me (about Daley). It was what didn’t appeal to me and that was her,” Hegge said. “Politics shouldn’t play into the Supreme Court and that’s what she’s doing.”
John Czaplewski of Madison said he voted for Bradley precisely because she’s liberal.
“She’s part of a strong but diminishing bloc of the Supreme Court that we need to maintain,” Czaplewski said.
The constitutional amendment would require the seven justices to decide every two years who they want to serve as chief justice. Currently, the position goes to the most senior member. Abrahamson, 81, has been on the court since 1976.
The chief serves as lead administrator for the state court system, with power to assign judges and justices for cases below the Supreme Court level, designate and assign reserve judges and schedule oral arguments before the high court, among other duties.
Supporters of the change say it’s undemocratic to have the position go automatically to the justice with the most experience.
Scott Manke, a 44-year-old engineer from Sun Prairie, said he voted for the change because seniority doesn’t always equate wisdom.
“The time you’ve been sitting in the seat doesn’t necessarily qualify you as the best person,” Manke said.
Greg Packnett of Madison voted against the amendment, calling it a clear partisan attack on Abrahamson.
“The fact that they wouldn’t be willing to grandfather her in, or I guess grandmother her in, it’s shenanigans,” he said.
Only six other states use a similar seniority-based system as Wisconsin, while 22 others have a peer selection process.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state chamber of commerce, spent at least $600,000 on an effort to get the amendment passed. Liberal advocacy group the Greater Wisconsin Committee worked to defeat both the amendment and Daley.
The Supreme Court race was the quietest of the past six contests dating back to 2007, which marked the beginning of large spending by outside partisan interests in judicial races in Wisconsin.
Daley ran no television ads in his race and no outside group ran spots to bolster his campaign.
Associated Press writers Dana Ferguson in Madison and Todd Richmond in Sun Prairie also contributed to this report.