Friday, January 6, 2017


By Dominique Paul Noth

Annette Ziegler, sady unopposed
Gathering information about the pending April 4 election I was struck by the biggest failure of 2017 for  the moderate and  liberal cultures  that still dominate the state --  to field ANY opponent to Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler, despite the puny legal ability reflected in her 10 years of decision-making. 

Several things about the Ziegler Zeitgeist jumped out at me, aside from how her race 10 years ago introduced the big campaign money game that has now become standard in supreme court races ($6 million back then). Or that before she could help change the financial disclosure rules on the high court, her favoritism as a judge in Washington County rulings toward the banking interests of her husband forced the state high court itself to reprimand her.

The big thing that jumped at me involves how little the public seems to know of her own writings after 10 years.  If they only went back to her concurring opinion in July of 2015 to shutting down the John Doe II investigation, they would have a better idea of the paucity, naval gazing and near paranoia of her decision-making process. 

In that opinion she relied on blatantly biased sources from the raided right-wing side about home searches that started formally at dawn --  6 a.m. Oct. 3, 2013. The descriptions she cited several times came from what today we describe as “fake news” opinion outlets. They painted the home raids falsely as nighttime searches paramilitary style or extraordinary predawn searches.
Building a rhetorical outrage over the treatment of these “average citizens” who all had ties to the highest echelons of Gov.  Scott Walker’s staff, Ziegler ignored that there was contradictory audio evidence revealing how professionally and politely the home searches were executed as well as evidence (including reporters at the scene) that there were secrecy reasons for some urgency to seize computer files.

It is one thing to be married to a conservative view of the world. It is quite another for a judge to be married to his or her own facts, and this opinion is a breathtaking example of that tendency.

So on many grounds, including common sense more than the partisan realities of this self-emasculating court, Zeigler should have had an opponent.

Something else jumped out at me. Money does cow values in Wisconsin. There were many efforts to recruit an opponent, but the need for cash to compete was the decider, several of the candidates approached admitted to me.

Ziegler who comes from a well heeled family is sitting on $200,000 in her campaign war chest, has months of fund-raising to go if she wants and has access to lots of third party support if she had been facing an opponent. “What's for certain is that conservative court candidates can count on massive outside support in any case,” journalist Bill Lueders emailed me.

Lueders, a noted leader in state political corruption exposure,  pointed out in a 2015 story that  WMC and Wisconsin Club for Growth together “provided an estimated $8.3 million for ‘issue ads’ helping elect Ziegler, Michael Gableman, David Prosser and Patience Roggensack — well more than the $3.2 million spent by these candidates’ own campaigns.” And this was before the arrival of Rebecca Bradley.

Don’t think an awareness of those coffers hasn’t affected the thousands of Wisconsin lawyers, legal academics and judges from who could be plucked candidates far better on paper than Ziegler. Any of them would face a runaway truck of money and pointed partisan scrutiny. Tsk tsk if you will at such fears about submitting to public service, but then think of putting your own family through such a hostile environment. 

The state court is a special kind of scraping sandpaper. It now tilts destructively conservative, as even true conservatives will admit, giving state government far too free a hand and resulting in court rulings that are comic book exercises in solipsism – where the personal opinions of a narrow mind interpret every important statute before it.

With the collusion of the governor, the GOP state legislature, the attorney general and the large corporations that not only help write the laws but depend on the court to uphold them, justice doesn’t have much of a chance.

And in opposing such machinery, the Democrats do have a recent history of getting ferociously ideological in their own right.  The 2016 race against Walker pet Rebecca Bradley provided a clear and cruel example.

She was only one of three candidates in the February primary and some hoped she could be eliminated there. The more leftist forces understandably rallied around Joanne Kloppenburg believing with some justification that she was robbed in a close 2011 election notable for decisive ballots found for David Prosser days after the election.  Other advocates  centered in Milwaukee felt passionately about the forward-looking record and warm personality of a Milwaukee jurist.

As I wrote at the time “The really qualified --  Milwaukee court veteran Joe Donald and appeals judge veteran Joanne Kloppenburg -- will split the intelligent and truly passionate  vote, leaving only one of them  standing Feb. 16 to face Bradley, who has just been assured of a gigantic war chest.”

An unseemly war of factions broke out not against Bradley but among the Democrats. Donald, whose intellectual gifts and breakthrough leadership along with an easy folksy manner, was also the epitome of the collegiality that existed in the Milwaukee circuit court system, where judges were courteous to each other despite ideological differences. 

Because he had been polite to Bradley when she was first appointed to the Milwaukee bench, the leftist forces behind Kloppenburg seized on that to color him as weak and too conservative – in an election that really required the public to feel the humanity and versatile thoughtfulness of a judge ahead of any strident politics.  Kloppenburg won big in the primary and she was a naked target to the Bradley attack that April built around her leftist support. And while she came close against Prosser, she was flattened by Bradley, easier to attack than Donald would have been.

Despite the history of self-destruction, there is a  developing myth that it is only the disorganization of the state Democratic Party responsible for the Ziegler free ride  this time around.  I don’t disagree that the Democrats are historically disorganized about developing a bench and figuring out campaign funding in the wake of Act 10, though I might argue that judicial candidates are not usually in their wheelhouse. These are technically nonpartisan elections.

Bryan Kennedy
I’m also a fan, and have been since he was a union leader and candidate, of   Bryan Kennedy, mayor of Glendale who is making noises about running for state party chair and is using the Ziegler case as a prime example.  “This is a failure of the Democratic Party to provide the kind of infrastructure that would encourage liberal/progressive Supreme Court justice candidates to run,” he writes. “If I were chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, I would be working to build year-round infrastructure to help our members get elected to nonpartisan offices in the spring elections.”

Martha Laning
But I’m also familiar with Martha Laning, who has been running the state party for only a year or so and has clearly stepped into a hornet’s nest of reorganizing and encouraging local activists, fielding even more blame in the wake of the  abysmal failures of 2016, many of which predate her election. 

The party does suffer from a long-term  lack of a bench and follow-through for certain positions. It is getting long in the tooth.  Judicial races are particularly disorganized largely because law associations play such a large role. In Milwaukee April 4, there is one circuit court contest that pits two progressive candidates against each other and another where a Walker appointee to the bench who was defeated last time around is running unopposed for another branch.

The Democrats deserve blame. They’ve taken far too long to listen and get busy with grassroots organizations and activists in 72 counties that  have different concerns and interests than can be met by a one-size-fits-all ideological program, and here is where Laning says she’s trying. 

Keith Ellison during UWM event
Kennedy is the out-front style of leader while Laning is more the backroom financial figure – the sort of split the Democrats are also seeing at the national party level. There the Sanders forces are praising Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison --  who actually visited UWM  last summer gathering a small crowd of somewhat indifferent students speaking for Clinton --   and other candidates such as Tom Perez, the Latino secretary of labor who has a strong financial and administrative record.

Laning is fielding abuse for not working fast enough but  can’t be accused of not working on the problems, particularly a 72 county blitz that is long overdue and that a gerrymandering lawsuit may finally put some teeth into. But anger and the desire for a more public face of action is lifting Kennedy in the public mind.

I would have thought the existence of Trump along with the loss of Russ Feingold – plus the fact that Hillary Clinton holds almost three million more votes nationally and the majority of the country is coping with a minority party in charge – would galvanize the Wisconsin citizenry into corrective action as early as the spring election, which is usually a time when the GOP dominates.

I remain amazed that the local conservative districts around the state seeing their schools and rivers weakened and their incomes and job stagnate have not yet seized pitchforks and marched into action.

But the injury is still abstract nationally (Trump is not yet in office) and seductive locally,  particularly among those who think Walker and his state minions have lowered their tax burden and are still on their side. The sometimes shrill rhetoric on the other side has done little to persuade them the way facts on the ground should.

There has long been a curious sheeplike and blindly optimistic side to America. There has been a tendency to seek scapegoats for personal problems and put faith, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court does, in which plaintiffs have the most money. So if there’s going to be a revolution, April 4 won’t lead this sort of  “Do You Hear the People Sing.” 

A chance at redemption by voting for Tony Evers
Even now the spring election  offers a chance for the citizenry to redeem itself.  The absence of having to defend Ziegler means the  right wing third party money will be concentrated on state schools superintendent Tony Evers – and that’s where the liberal/progressive forces should also concentrate.  Evers is  a true educator who remains the lone independent voice in state government, able to work with the governor and still confront him on those devastating education cuts and wrongheaded policy, while fighting for public education and even successful charter schools. 

Meanwhile two candidates, both voucher supporters emboldened by the likelihood of voucher fund guru queen  Betsy DeVos becoming federal secretary of education, are prepared to coalesce big money against Evers whichever survives the primary.

This is the only statewide contest of consequence, though there are interesting local judicial and school board races and the like. If the Ziegler follies are a prime example, it will take a real outrage the community has not yet demonstrated to save his job and our children’s future.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for 


  1. Good analysis, except your assertion that liberal or progressive views dominate the state. Democrats have managed to alienate the economically liberal / socially conservative voter who dominates Wisconsin, and have essentially driven white men out of the party. As a result, Wisconsin may have become a more or less permanent addition to the Republican coalition. If you think this is still a "liberal/ progressive" state, you are fooling yourself.

  2. Cheesehead, I think I said that moderate or liberal views dominate state and despite Trump I think that's true, plus I took more than few shots at the Democrats. Perhaps my view of moderate is different than yours.


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