By GREG MOORE
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Wisconsin voters advanced an incumbent Supreme Court justice and a Court of Appeals judge to an April showdown for a 10-year term on the state’s highest court, a contest likely to play out along ideological lines after a sharply partisan primary.
Rebecca Bradley, who has served on the court since Gov. Scott Walker appointed her to fill a vacancy the fall, and JoAnne Kloppenburg, a Court of Appeals judge, easily outpolled Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald in Tuesday’s primary. Bradley finished with 45 percent, or 251,823 votes, to Kloppenburg’s 43 percent, or 243,190 votes. Donald had 12 percent.
During the primary campaign, Bradley was widely seen as the conservative choice. Her October appointment to finish the term of the late Patrick Crooks was the third time Walker, a Republican, had appointed Bradley to a judgeship in the past three years.
Kloppenburg, a former Peace Corps volunteer, was seen as the more liberal candidate, just as she was in an unsuccessful 2011 race for the high court that she lost narrowly to Justice David Prosser. That election became a proxy battle for Walker’s political agenda and ended up attracting national attention as liberal groups supported Kloppenburg and conservatives backed Prosser.
Both Bradley and Kloppenburg rejected the suggestion Tuesday evening that the election was bound to play out along partisan lines.
Bradley said it will be “a nonpartisan race for a nonpartisan position” and that her primary success shows her message and judicial philosophy — which she has said is “to interpret the law, not invent it” — “resonated across the spectrum, across Wisconsin.” She said she plans to “continue to run a positive campaign and to focus on what I bring to the court.”
Kloppenburg, meanwhile, said “conservative” and “liberal” are “labels other people chose to use.” She said her primary win shows “people don’t want partisan politics or special interests on their court.”
Kloppenburg then said Bradley’s political connections and rulings show she is biased. “I alone am the truly nonpartisan, independent candidate in this race,” she said.
Kloppenburg said she plans to reach out to voters who supported Donald, who issued a concession statement Tuesday evening, saying: “I am proud of the campaign we ran and the issues we brought to the forefront. The influence of partisan politics and special interest money has a terrible impact on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and our entire judicial system.”
The Supreme Court election was the only statewide race in Tuesday’s primary, which included scattered county and municipal races. Turnout was projected at only around 10 percent.
A photo ID was required to vote, a new requirement stemming from a law first passed in 2011 but eventually put on hold until it was upheld by the state Supreme Court in one of several rulings seen as partisan in recent years.
Conservative judges, including Bradley, currently hold a 5-2 majority on the court. Enmity between the justices has spilled into public view in recent years, including last year when the conservative bloc — given the power by voters to choose their leader — stripped Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson of the post and handed it to Patience Roggensack. Abrahamson briefly sued over the demotion before giving up.
In a deeply scrutinized ruling last year, the court shut down a secret investigation into Walker’s re-election campaign. Kloppenburg criticized the decision as unnecessarily lengthy and complex, and for drawing from material that wasn’t presented in the case. Bradley has said it would be unethical and improper to comment on court decisions because it could taint future litigation.