Candidates Divided on Place of Politics in Supreme Court Elections

The two candidates for the state’s highest court who are backed by liberals on Friday showed deep divisions on whether politics has a place in judicial elections.

Madison attorney Tim Burns and Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet, during their first candidate forum in Madison hosted by the liberal-leaning American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, mostly focused on whether Burns’ approach of running an unabashedly liberal Supreme Court campaign was appropriate for judicial candidates.

Since he announced his intention to seek a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Burns has said repeatedly that he holds progressive values and would uphold them if he were elected to the court.

“My voice may shake, but I will be an unshakable champion for progressive values on the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” Burns said, referring to being born with imperfect vocal cords. “I am not going to apologize for my progressive views.”

But Dallet pushed back on Burns’ approach, saying that Burns taking public positions on issues or policies — such as Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining measure known as Act 10 — harms the integrity of the Supreme Court.

“I do not think that making these open statements is progressive. I think what is truly progressive is having independent courts,” she said.

On Friday, Burns also said “right-wing” judges had for years “fundamentally reshaped” the U.S. economy and contributed to the election of an “unhinged billionaire,” referring to President Donald Trump. Burns said if elected, he would be fair and impartial but would not ignore past decisions from conservative-leaning judges that “weakened protections” for the middle class.

“I plan to be a fair and impartial judge but we all have to recognize something — because we don’t get fair and impartial judges by continuing to believe in the fairy tale that political values don’t matter to these judges,” he said.

Dallet said she believes Burns is defending his approach of expressing political opinions publicly as a response to conservative-leaning judicial candidates who she said have introduced politics to judicial elections.

“We need to stop politicizing our courts,” she said. “I think if someone takes positions on issues openly in a political matter — in a judicial matter — and then (a) case comes before that justice who has made statements about those exact issues … there, at the very least, is a sense from the litigants that … they are not getting a fair shake, that they are getting someone who already made up their mind.”

Both candidates appeared at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin convention earlier this summer and have appeared at Democratic political events.

A third candidate, Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock — who is backed by conservatives — did not attend the forum due to scheduling issues, according to ACS Madison chapter president Jeff Mandell.

The three candidates will face off in a primary election Feb. 20, with the top two advancing to the April 3 general election to replace Justice Michael Gableman, who is not seeking re-election.

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