After the state Department of Justice released its report on the leak of John Doe records, Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Tim Burns unloaded on Twitter.
“The horror of Walker’s rubber stamp Supreme Court: the people are left without a means to determine if public officials are abusing their power and an independent branch of government to stop the abuse. #JohnDoe #WIpolitics #SCOWIS,” wrote Burns, running in a three-way race early next year for the seat being vacated by conservative Michael Gableman.
It is far from the only time the Middleton attorney has taken a stand on Twitter. In recent weeks, he’s tweeted Wisconsin voters want a justice who won’t be “just another rubber stamp for Scott Walker’s extreme agenda” and asked for help to change the court because “I believe we have to stop the mass incarceration of people of color.”
Typically, Supreme Court candidates shy away from such comments on legal and political issues, often saying conduct rules for judges and judicial candidates mean they can’t take stands on matters that could come before the court. That often leaves them issuing bland pronouncements about their legal philosophies or touting endorsements from law enforcement.
But in an environment with liberals fired up over President Trump GOP domination of D.C. and Madison, Burns has chosen a much different path. He makes no bones about running as an unabashed progressive as he works toward a February primary with Milwaukee Judge Rebecca Dallet, who’s running a left-of-center campaign, and Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, a favorite of Republicans. In the process he’s won the backing of partisans like U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, the Madison-area politician who is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Aides to Dallet and Screnock knock the approach, though they stop short of saying whether Burns’ statements have violated judicial conduct rules.
Burns said he has read extensively those restrictions and is aware of them every time he speaks.
“Our campaign morality is to let voters know who I am,” Burns told WisPolitics.com.
Burns has a prolific presence on Twitter, weighing in on news stories and retweeting links to articles. He has proclaimed, “I believe in strong workers #unions and think efforts to undermine them harm all of us” and that “Voter ID laws that disproportionately impact people of color are dangerous to our democracy and our economy.”
In September, an appeals court upheld Wisconsin’s right-to-work law, while various challenges to voter ID have been filed in state and federal courts in recent years.
This week, he tweeted several reasons why he’s a progressive, including “I think that #women should get to make their own healthcare decisions. I believe in one person, one vote. I think that #Gerrymandering threatens our democracy.”
Burns’ statements do not include an explicit promise to vote one way or another on a court case, and he said that’s because he is closely hewing to court rules.
Among other things, the rules state a judge, judge-elect or candidate for judicial office may not “with respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court” make promises on how they would rule.
Sean Lansing, an adviser to Screnock’s campaign, said the circuit court judge will be clear about his judicial philosophy. But he believes Burns is implicitly indicating to parties how he would rule on the bench.
“These guys should be impartial arbiters of the law and not political activists,” Lansing said. “Tim Burns has shown he’s more of a political activist at heart than a legal mind.”
Jessica Lovejoy, Dallet’s campaign manager, held up the endorsement Burns won from the liberal group Our Wisconsin Revolution to question the lawyer’s ability to be impartial if elected to the bench. She charged Burns pledged to “carry out” the group’s platform.
“If Mr. Burns wants to push a political agenda, he should run for the Legislature,” Lovejoy said.
Our Wisconsin Revolution, which counts former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ backers among those who helped found the organization, has approved a platform calling for among other things: “vigorously” defending limits on high-capacity wells, concentrated animal feeding operations, mining and other “environmentally-harmful practices.”
Terrance Warthen, OWR’s state co-chair, said the group’s endorsement process does not begin until a candidate approaches OWR, and Burns sought its support. Candidates are then given equal time and are supplied with the platform.
In the process, all candidates were asked to read the platform and note where they agree or disagree and why, according to an email the group sent during the process that was shared with WisPolitics.com. The email noted judicial candidates cannot “commit to pre-judging cases,” but Burns agreed with the values outlined in the platform “in full.”
“We’re not asking anyone to pledge fealty to any organization. We’re just asking for basically what is your system of beliefs?” Warthen said.
Dallet’s campaign gave WisPolitics.com a letter the judge sent the organization’s board of directors before the endorsement was released. She wrote it was “inappropriate and unlawful for judges and judicial candidates to sign a pledge supporting a political platform.”
“Any judge who does so is essentially assuring that they must recuse themselves from cases involving the issues in that platform,” she wrote, including a reference to the Judicial Code of Ethics and the provision banning judges and candidates from making pledges.
Burns rejects that he did any such thing. He also said what he’s done is no different that candidates filling out questionnaires
“Do I think CAFOS are dangerous for a lot of reasons?” Burns said. “Yes, I do. Does that mean I’m going to be biased against them when they come into court with an actual lawsuit? No. It just means that as a citizen, as a policy matter, I have political views. Guess what? Anybody running for this office does. I’m just candid because I think voters deserve to know.”