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View from around the state: Supreme Court contest matters as much as presidential vote

— From The Capital Times

The highest-profile races on the April 5 Wisconsin ballot are likely to be the primary contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. It is possible that both fights could be settled before the 2016 campaign reaches Wisconsin, but our bet is that voters will get a chance to weigh in on continuing contests on the Democratic side between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (the new Marquette University Law School poll has Sanders at 44 percent, Clinton at 43 percent) and on the Republican side between Donald Trump and whichever Republican finally emerges as his clear rival (the Marquette poll has Trump leading with 30 percent, but that means 70 percent of Republicans are disinclined toward the billionaire).

While the attention will be on the presidential competitions, there will be an equally important contest on the April 5 ballot. Voting for a place on the state Supreme Court will determine whether Wisconsin’s historic commitment to judicial independence and integrity will be renewed.

The good news is that Wisconsinites appear to be excited about addressing the damage done to the courts by Gov. Scott Walker and his hyperpartisan allies. Walker and his corporate and legislative minions have sought to make the Wisconsin Supreme Court an extension of the governor’s administration. But under the Wisconsin Constitution, voters are given the power to push back against executive overreach. And they are doing just that.

The Feb. 19 primary for the state Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Patrick Crooks drew 563,386 voters to the polls.

That was a significantly higher turnout than had been predicted.

Why so?

We believe that it is because Wisconsinites are justifiably agitated about the governor’s assault on the courts.

Last fall, Walker seized on the death of Crooks to appoint a crony, Rebecca Bradley, to the high court.

Bradley is a Walker creation. She was named by the governor to three judicial openings in three years: Milwaukee County Circuit Court, state Appeals Court, state Supreme Court. And she has mounted a campaign that is so closely tied to the governor’s campaign donors and political networks that her claims of impartiality are unconvincing.

The voters just don’t seem to be buying Bradley’s slickly packed and very expensive political appeal.

Despite the fact that Bradley was campaigning as an appointed incumbent, despite the fact that she and her allies spent heavily before the primary, despite the fact that she had a lot of support from the powerful interests that are aligned with the governor and his party, Bradley won only 44.7 percent of the vote.

A striking 55.3 percent of Wisconsinites voted for candidates who stressed judicial independence and integrity.

To get a sense of how significant that number is, consider this: In 2008, Barack Obama was considered to be a very big winner in the presidential race, and he only won 52.9 percent of the vote. Or consider this: When George H.W. Bush trounced Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush won just 53.4 percent of the vote.

If the supporters of judicial independence and integrity make up 55 percent of the potential electorate in the April 5 Supreme Court election, Bradley’s challenger, state Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg is in a very strong position.

Kloppenburg ran almost even with Bradley in the primary. While Bradley secured her 44.7 percent, Kloppenburg won 43.2 percent. The rest of the vote went to Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald, another critic of Bradley, who won 12.1 percent.

Donald has endorsed Kloppenburg, uniting the independence-and-integrity bloc. Donald praised Kloppenburg’s experience and dedication to the rule of law, adding, “I also appreciate that her campaign is based on hope not fear: She is running because she believes deeply in the power of the law and our courts to make our communities and our state a better place for all our citizens.”

Those fine words of endorsement do not guarantee that Kloppenburg will win. Big-money interests and the governor’s allies will continue to pull for Bradley. And history suggests that they will go negative.

But Wisconsinites are getting tired of Walker’s crude “divide-and-conquer” politics, just as they have grown increasingly frustrated with the governor’s determined efforts to maintain control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government.

If Kloppenburg builds a coalition of Wisconsinites who are sick of the cronyism that is on display in the governor’s appointments, and if the voters begin to see through the ugly “messaging” that this governor and his allies employ in order to maintain their authority, she can win.

The key is to forge that coalition. Judge Donald’s endorsement suggests that there is unity among those who want to renew the honor of Wisconsin’s high court. Now it is time to build upon that unity, to keep primary voters working together, and to expand the electorate to bring in more voters who embrace Wisconsin values.

Walker and his allies will always have the money advantage. And they are more than willing to use the power of their positions to remake Wisconsin in their image. But the evidence is mounting that Wisconsin is over Walker — and Walkerism. If that is the case, then Walker’s favored jurist, Rebecca Bradley, is indeed vulnerable.

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