Once the Foxconn and budget dust settles, the focus of many political observers will shift to next year’s fall elections.  

But another pivotal election looms even sooner. The April 2018 ballot will feature candidates to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. In less than six months, a February primary will determine the two April candidates.

The campaign is likely to be unpleasant. Two announced candidates question the judicial independence and integrity of the Court’s five-member conservative majority. Whichever candidate reaches the April ballot will be backed by those who helped orchestrate and exploit smear campaigns against former Justice David Prosser and Justice Rebecca Bradley. The sole conservative candidate needs to get ready.

Independent spending — not under control of the candidates — will be noteworthy. Given the track record of the Greater Wisconsin Committee, there will be dirt.  

The media’s role will warrant scrutiny; recall the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s egregious coverage of one candidate’s personal life in the most recent campaign.

Campaigning so far has been limited.  Still, enough is known to identify clear differences among the candidates.

Madison’s Tim Burns makes no secret of his view that the Court is a proper place to advance an openly political agenda. At a forum earlier this month, he spoke of using the Court to “tame the power of concentrated wealth and big business.” In a CapTimes op-ed, Burns offered his view that “right-wing judges have been chipping away at the laws that protected our democracy and our middle-class economy.”

An interesting question is whether Burns’ effort to channel Bernie Sanders will be more appealing to liberals than the supposed “independence” offered by Milwaukee Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet. Dallet’s website says she will return “independence and balance” to an “increasingly partisan”  Court. She offers a pointedly harsh assessment of the Court’s current majority: “We need judges who will ensure that bias is removed from the courtroom. It’s time for the era of special interest influence to end.”  So much for signaling an interest in strengthening collegiality.  

Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock offers a clear message on what should be a central issue in the campaign, namely, the role of the Court. Describing his judicial philosophy, he says, in part:

The role of a judge or justice is to interpret and apply the law, not rewrite the law. Our system of government has at its foundation three co-equal branches – legislative, executive, and judicial. When the constitutionality of a law is questioned, the judiciary serves an important role as a legal check on the actions of the other two branches, and appropriately declares when they have overstepped their lawful authority. When a court is asked to interpret a law, its role is to declare what the law is, based on what the legislative and executive branches have done, and not what the court thinks it should be…It is not the role of a court to veto, or rewrite, laws that it believes are unwise or imprudent.

Screnock’s view is decidedly at odds with the prevailing “progressive” agenda advanced during Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg’s unsuccessful campaigns against Prosser and Bradley. Most liberal backers of Burns and Dallet likewise would flatly reject Screnock’s vision of the court. They want a Court that will undo legislative defeats they have experienced since 2010. As the saying goes, they want an “activist” Court.

As was the case with Bradley, Screnock’s opponents will stress his connections to Governor Scott Walker. Prior to being appointed a judge by the governor, Screnock was on the legal team that defended the constitutionality of Act 10. It strikes me that his success in that role should work to his advantage. When Burns and Dallet go after Screnock on that score, will the media follow up by asking if they think Act 10 is unconstitutional?  

As the campaign unfolds, it will be abundantly clear that the stakes this time are every bit as crucial as in the last two campaigns.  Only Screnock offers a reasoned and cogent view of the Court’s proper role. The voting public has shown that it favors that view.