State Supreme Court comes down to numbers

Wisconsin could see changes in who serves
State Supreme Court comes down to numbers
Voters will decide April 7 whether to give Justice Ann Walsh Bradley a third term on the bench or replace her with Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ultimately comes down to numbers.

Voters will decide April 7 whether to give Justice Ann Walsh Bradley a third term on the bench or replace her with Rock County Circuit Judge James Daley. Bradley’s ouster would increase the court’s already conservative majority to 5-2, rather than its current 4-3.

Bradley, sixty-four, worked as a teacher and attorney before winning her seat on the court. Daley, sixty-seven, is a decorated Vietnam War veteran whom former governor Tommy Thompson appointed to the bench after he served three terms as Rock County District Attorney.

A term on the state’s highest court lasts ten years. Bradley, first elected in 1995, and Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, appointed in 1976 and elected in 1979, are the court’s two longest-serving members. They are also members of its more liberal minority, along with Justice N. Patrick Crooks.

The court has been mired in embarrassing dysfunction for years. It hit bottom nearly four years ago with a heated altercation that left Bradley accusing fellow Justice David Prosser of putting her in a chokehold. Prosser claimed Bradley charged at him, and no charges were filed after an investigation. The incident resulted in ethics charges for Prosser that languished when too many justices on the court declined to participate in the case.

Supreme Court elections are labeled as nonpartisan, even though it’s clear by how outside interest groups line up that they are not. The contests don’t result in debates that are widely watched or get into much detail of how prospective justices would approach their work. Candidates for the court often cite the judicial code of ethics, which they say precludes them from discussing the specifics of cases.

That leaves advocacy groups to fill in the blanks and try to sway voters in the direction of the candidate who would most likely rule in their favor. In 2011, when Prosser narrowly defeated JoAnne Kloppenburg to keep his seat on the high court, special interest groups supporting both candidates spent more than $3.5 million combined. Spending was lower in 2013 when Justice Patience Roggensack beat challenger Ed Fallone to win another term, though spending on television ads by campaigns and outside groups topped $1 million.

Wisconsin voters will also get to decide on Election Day whether the court should change its rules for choosing the chief justice. The court’s most senior member has historically served as chief, but a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot asks voters to instead allow the seven justices to select their leader.

In the coming months, another number could become a factor for the court: age.

There is no retirement age for justices, but Republican legislators are looking to change that by passing legislation that mandates justices leave the bench at age seventy-five. Abrahamson is eighty-one. A vacancy would give Gov. Scott Walker the chance to appoint her replacement and alter the court’s makeup without the drama and expense of an election.