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State Supreme Court debate marks sharp new tone

Justice Rebecca Bradley, left, and JoAnne Kloppenburg listen during a Wisconsin Supreme Court debate on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, at Marquette University in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Greg Moore)

Justice Rebecca Bradley (left) and JoAnne Kloppenburg listen during a Wisconsin Supreme Court debate on Tuesday at Marquette University in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Greg Moore)

Associated Press

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court candidates went after each other in a debate Tuesday evening that took a far sharper tone than previous encounters, even as they battled over familiar territory of judicial philosophy, negative headlines and political independence.

With just three weeks to go before the election, Justice Rebecca Bradley and Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg started their sparring on the Constitution and whether it was the most important element of the campaign.

“The key,” Kloppenburg said, “is keeping partisan politics off the court” and making sure it’s “not dominated by Scott Walker,” who appointed Bradley in October.

Bradley said the race should be focused on their judicial philosophies, but later returned the shot, by saying “the only person introducing partisan politics is my opponent” and pointing out the support Kloppenburg received from liberal groups in her failed 2011 state Supreme Court bid.

The exchange came on the same day the campaigns launched their first ads of the general election. The candidates are seeking a 10-year term on the state’s highest court in a race that’s officially nonpartisan, but has played out along similar lines as previous state Supreme Court races and been deeply divided.

Bradley’s ad touts endorsements from judges and sheriffs in Waukesha and Walworth counties, though it doesn’t identify them, calling her “smart,” ”tough” and “fair.”

Kloppenburg’s ad, meanwhile, questions Bradley’s independence, noting she’s been appointed to judgeships by Walker three times in recent years. It was a theme she returned to during the debate when she said Walker’s “fast-track” appointments suggest “it’s politics, not qualifications” driving the decisions.

Bradley worked to keep the discussion during the debate at Marquette University focused on her judicial philosophy, which she says is to interpret the law as its written. She says her perspective tracks with that of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. She said Scalia was noted for seeking to interpret statutes and the Constitution under their original meaning. Bradley said her opponent believes the Constitution is a “living document,” which allows judges to “inject personal preference” into their opinions.

Kloppenburg, meanwhile, said she also upholds the Constitution to “protect individual rights” and “promote a more equal society.” She said her judicial philosophy involves “applying the law to the facts, fairly and thoughtfully.”

Bradley’s campaign has faced several damaging revelations recently, and she addressed them Tuesday, reiterating her apology for college writings in which she bashed gays and feminists. She also said she was offended that Kloppenburg had “the audacity” to think she could “look into my heart and mind and know what I think” to determine whether she had changed over the past 24 years.

Kloppenburg said a 2006 opinion piece that equated contraception with murder along with support from conservatives, including Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, show Bradley continues to hold extreme positions.

Bradley said the point-counterpoint column merely reflected her defending a position as she had been asked and that her views don’t align with all of her supporters, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Bradley also introduced an article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which reported that she acknowledged an affair with a co-worker. Bradley has said the romantic relationship came after she and her ex-husband had already separated, and on Tuesday she called it “a vile piece of garbage masquerading as journalism” and “a hit job.”

She called on Kloppenburg to disavow it, but Kloppenburg refused and said the facts in the story were “fair game” for criticism.

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