MILWAUKEE (AP) - The Wisconsin Supreme Court primary election arrives Tuesday with the same overt partisanship that has characterized the court itself in recent years, but a look past the campaign ads finds more differences in the candidates than just ideology.
Rebecca Bradley started her career defending doctors in malpractice lawsuits and focused on business law before ascending to the lower-court bench. JoAnne Kloppenburg is a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent more than two decades in the attorney general’s office. Joe Donald helped create a drug treatment court in Milwaukee.
All three say their impartiality makes them uniquely suited to the job, but only two will advance to the spring election in April.
“The challenge for voters,” Kloppenburg said, “is to see who is most likely to deliver on that promise.”
Kloppenburg, who did rural development work in Botswana and established a women’s nutrition program in upstate New York when she returned to the U.S. in the early ‘80s, said her more than 20 years’ experience as a prosecutor in the Wisconsin Justice Department, her background as the only candidate who was first voted in to office, rather than appointed, and her judicial record suggest she won’t be beholden to political agendas or special interest groups. “Voters support me because they can’t tell how I’m going to decide a case in advance,” the appeals court judge said.
But Donald has cast Kloppenburg as the choice of liberals - even as he himself has been endorsed by Democrats such as Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore.
The longtime Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge began to raise his profile when he helped establish a special court program in 2009 that looked to deal with the underlying causes of drug crimes, including poverty, addiction and untreated mental health problems. “We had to figure out a way to maintain safety, but also help people,” he said. He said people who have been through the program are less likely to reoffend and that the drug court has reduced “the cost associated with locking so many people up.”
He was appointed by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1996 and says it’s proof of his independence. He also says he hasn’t received support from special interest groups. “I’m trying to get politics and money out of our court,” he said.
Kloppenburg has criticized Donald for supporting Bradley in the past. Both challengers, however, have gone after Bradley, the incumbent by way of a recent appointment, as the conservatives’ pick who would further tip the court’s balance in that direction. They point out that she has been appointed to three judgeships in three years by Gov. Scott Walker and that she has received support from the conservative Wisconsin Alliance for Reform.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks political spending, the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform is the only outside group to purchase television ads in the race - about $435,000 in air time as of Friday. The Bradley campaign hasn’t booked TV time. Donald’s campaign has spent about $143,000 on TV spots, compared to Kloppenburg’s $133,000.
The candidates were fairly even in their own fundraising.
Donald and Kloppenburg have tried to turn Bradley’s outside support against her, saying money from groups that don’t have to disclose their donors doesn’t belong in the race. “These expenditures raise concerns among voters that justice is for sale,” Kloppenburg said.
Bradley says such groups are exercising free speech and “it’s not my place to tell them not to do so.”
The former private practice attorney has had a rapid ascent she was appointed to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court late in 2012. She was tapped for an appeals court spot last spring and was selected for the state’s highest court in October. Bradley says her experience as a trial court, appeals court and high court judge are unmatched. That, plus her 16 years “in all manner of civil litigation” in private practice make her uniquely qualified, she said.
Bradley said she’s running on her judicial philosophy, which is to make “the right decision under the law.” She expands on the concept in a statement on her campaign website, which reads: “The role of a justice is to interpret the law, not invent it. The people of Wisconsin are best served by justices who understand and embrace their duty to state what the law is, not what they prefer it to be.”
Bradley declined to comment on recent decisions by the right-leaning court. But Donald and Kloppenburg said rulings on voter ID and on John Doe investigations are examples of politically driven decisions that benefit conservatives.
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