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State Supreme Court race could be referendum on Walker

Associated Press

supreme-courtMADISON, Wis. (AP) — The death of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks with 10 months left on his term could set up a spring election that’s as much a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker as it is on who should serve on the state’s highest court.

Walker is considering appointing Rebecca Bradley, a state appeals court judge he’s twice named to lower court openings and who already had conservative support in her previously announced run for Supreme Court. Two other candidates for the court, who also announced their plans to run before Crooks died, have not applied to be appointed by Walker for the opening.

One of those candidates, Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, is heavily backed by Democrats. The other, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald, is trying to present himself as the most independent choice of the three.

Races for the Supreme Court are officially nonpartisan, but the reality in recent years has been conservatives and liberals — and well-funded outside groups — coalescing around the candidates they favor and spending millions.

Kloppenburg ran in one of the most partisan battles for the high court in recent years. In 2011, she took on Justice David Prosser, a former Republican speaker of the state Assembly who was backed by Republicans. The election came in the middle of the battle over what would become Act 10, Walker’s law effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers.

Prosser became tied to Walker, while Kloppenburg was cast as the liberal alternative. The election quickly became a referendum on Walker’s policies.

Prosser won.

A similar dynamic is shaping up for this race.

Walker has already appointed Bradley to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 2012, where she was then elected in 2013, and then to the state Appeals Court in May. Naming Bradley to the Supreme Court will solidify Walker’s ties with her.

“It absolutely would be a referendum on Walker,” said Jay Heck, director of government watchdog group Common Cause in Wisconsin. “That’s really not where the Supreme Court needs to be.”

Common Cause and three other advocacy groups are calling on Walker not to appoint anyone who intends to run for the seat in the spring.

The conventional wisdom is that Walker will choose Bradley, said former Justice Jon Wilcox. No matter who is selected, it’s important to get someone on the court quickly to reduce the possibility of 3-3 ties, Wilcox said.

Walker, in defense of considering Bradley for the slot, cites two examples of judges who were appointed to openings and later ran for full terms. But in both of those cases from the 1990s, the judges had not already announced their plans to run before they were appointed by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson.

The situation caused by Crooks’ death on Sept. 21 is much different.

Crooks, who had been in failing health, had already said he was not going to run for re-election. All three of the candidates had announced their runs and were actively campaigning when Crooks died.

Walker insists that he will base his appointment decision on three criteria: finding someone who is an outstanding attorney, has integrity and “understands the proper role of a judge.”

He also posted messages on Twitter last week saying there is precedent for governors appointing judges who go on to run for the court. He cited the examples of Thompson naming Janine Geske to the court in 1993 and Dianne Sykes in 1999.

But unlike this year, in those instances neither Geske nor Sykes were in the midst of a campaign for the court. Geske ran for a full term after she was appointed and won in 1994, then resigned in 1998. She is a retired law professor at Marquette University.

Sykes immediately formed a campaign committee after her appointment and was elected in 2000. She resigned in 2004 after being appointed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where she still serves.

Donald said in a statement that Walker should defer to the will of the people and only appoint someone who agrees not to run for the seat.

“Wisconsin doesn’t need a coronation, it needs a Supreme Court Justice who earns the support of Wisconsin voters,” Donald said.

Kloppenburg said appointing Bradley “would appear to be an attempt to thwart the people’s will.” But even if she’s not appointed to the Supreme Court, the fact that Walker twice named her to judgeships before makes her “Walker’s candidate,” Kloppenburg said in a statement.

Bradley issued a statement announcing she was applying for the appointment and she wished the others seeking the seat well. Walker’s office did not immediately release the names of those who applied.

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