Friday, March 13, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

Ann Walsh Bradley is the name on the ballot to
re-elect, but there is more to April 7 election.
As John Lewis spoke March 7 at the bridge in Selma where 50 years ago  he shed blood for voting rights . . . as President Obama that same day same place criticized feeble US  election turnout despite the history of citizens who risked death to secure the ballot rights  . . .  as media praised 2,000 Madison protesters for peacefully demanding legal change after  the death at police hands of another unarmed black youth. . . as thousands more Wisconsin citizens took to the streets March 10 for the Wisconsin Jobs Now call for action on economic and political dysfunction,  there were NO media reports that tied any of this to the natural next event in Wisconsin – how about an election where voters can start to focus such feelings into actual change?  

But there is such a statewide election April 7, one of the few ballot chances this year that speak to the land’s hottest fever for effective democratic action that elected officials will hear loud and clear. This election  if you dig deep directly combats the partisanship that has so severely gridlocked and eroded faith in our court system. So voters right and left could use this April 7 to rise up and say “Enough!” If they stop the court shenanigans emanating from political bigwigs, Madison will have to reconsider much that is on their playing table. The vote can restack the deck. 

But it takes work and subtleties not popular in the mass media. I  spoke to two dozen people yesterday who didn’t even know there was an election April 7. Sure enough the contests sound pretty mundane, judicial issues and many uncontested regional races.   The majority of voters probably won’t bother because of that  – election insiders predict less than 15% turnout.  Amazing. Despite recent history the citizens don’t seem to realize they are about to be outmaneuvered again by a handful of political insiders who do pay attention. 

But one question on the ballot requires voter consent to any change in the constitution. That’s something even some  liberal media doesn’t seem to realize when they say Scott Walker has pulled off another supreme court coup April 7. No he hasn’t.  That coup  vanishes if the voters speak out. They can confound expectations by opposing Joint Resolution 1.  

This resolution is disguised for all sides as a house cleaning technical change to the state constitution. It is actually an unsavory legislative attempt to overrule previous voter choice and abandon a proven 126-year-old method of choosing the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court by tenure.  It is clearly aimed at sidelining Wisconsin’s most respected justice and proven court administrator (the duty of the chief justice), Shirley Abrahamson,  four years before voters get a say about her at the polls.

Once voters realize the real goal and halt this resolution, they can then pivot in the same election and re-elect a proven justice, Ann Walsh Bradley. Though labeled by the GOP  as part of the liberal wing, they must mean the integrity wing. In her  20 years on the high court I have never seen her be about political camps as much as legal research and  reasoning. 

The political insiders are hoping we’re dumb enough to give their side a  twofer. They hope through the camouflage of house cleaning they can manipulate enough voters who think eliminating tradition in the state constitution is some sort of progress. And second, while the thinking vote is clearly in  Bradley’s corner, the GOP hopes that if they yell liberal loud enough they can find  enough rabid partisans to bounce her as well. You know who tends to turn out in such races when the majority voters aren't paying attention. There is a presumption at work here  that is universally insulting for a nonpartisan race -- that justice is simply another appendage of political power, not something that benefits from experience, judgment and balance. 

Her name isn't on the ballot but Chief Justice
Shirley Abrahamson is the real target.
State voters knew Abrahamson was chief justice when they roundly preferred her in 2009 for a 10 year term, so this maneuver in the middle of her term is a slap in the voters’ face.  Even then she was recognized as more than the leading progressive voice on the court.  In nearly 40 years on the highest state  court as both political camps seesawed in the legislature and the governor’s mansion, she never stooped to fit any party’s political cloth.  Her measured opinions protecting citizens and eloquent dissents continue to survive the bully tactics of whatever party briefly controls Madison.   That’s why good justices relish nonpartisanship.

But it’s partisan interference in campaigns and hostile ideological attitudes that  bring shame to our judicial system, almost forcing the federal courts to step in as much as they don’t want to.   One thing the feds have respected is Abrahamson, once considered for the US Supreme Court. She  has been a firm rudder of independence and higher ideals of how state courts should operate. Yet these novice GOPers would prefer a revolving door of changing chief justices of their choice to control what issues come through the court system.  She’s been quite effective despite all that sensationalism from the right in encouraging education programs and modernized justice operations. She has kept her wits and stability despite the arrows, attacks on her age and anti-intellectual arrogance thrown out by  back benchers pretending to belong in the front row. 

Knowing her reputation, the GOP has cunningly made sure her name is not on the ballot.  That hasn’t hidden she is the target. A broad swath of the media and respected legal authorities have  joined citizens around the state in calling  Joint Resolution 1 what it is --    the “vendetta resolution” or, more nakedly from veteran watchdog Bill Lueders, the “we hate Shirley amendment.” 

Geske outspoken about real target.
The only reason it’s there, Janine Geske said, “is because there is a dislike by some for our current chief justice, Shirley S. Abrahamson.”  Geske, the former state justice appointed by Gov. Thompson and now  highly regarded as professor of law and Restorative Justice programs at Marquette University, is a leading centrist on social issues recently elevated to Marquette’s board of trustees.  She recognizes Joint Resolution 1 as too partisan ugly to stand scrutiny. “For us to amend that constitution because some are unhappy with the style of a particular justice is a terrible mistake,” she said.

Abrahamson’s commitment to the law and independence grow in importance for a Wisconsin suffering the “bought side” of the state justices who received $8.3 million in campaign support over seven years from the Koch related groups that frequently have business with the court -- Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Club for Growth and other ancillary groups that have given their chosen candidates much more than twice the money their own campaigns raised.  We’re talking mainly in order of money Michael Gableman,  Annette Ziegler, David Prosser and Patricia Roggensack, who once was not dismissed as a  partisan go-along but now  seems to have changed from  right-of-middle to gung-ho protector of her most extreme flank. 

Obviously these justices expect something other than a handshake for all that opinionated big money reliant on sympathetic court opinion. Bradley has never been that way and she has sat on the high court for 20 years.  A high school teacher, then private lawyer, then circuit judge before 1995 election to the top court, she boasts bipartisan support, powerful backing from elected judges and law enforcement officials and a steady record highly preferred to Republican opponent James Daley, a Rock County circuit judge who has fumbled media interviews.

The fumbles came when he ducked a key issue of this campaign while Bradley hasn’t. She is an outspoken opponent of the “increasing role of partisan and special-interest groups in shaping and influencing the high court. “  Bradley, unlike the GOP partisans trying referenda trickery aimed at Abrahamson, believes that open votes on the ballot are the way to restore fairness and comity to the high court. 

Daley instead is playing a duplicitous game, pretending bipartisanship on the trail while catering on social media to the extreme right and taking the equivalent of $7,000 in staff and consulting from the state Republican Party. Bradley has called him out for so openly relying on one side while pretending he will be neutral on the bench. Meanwhile he has been caught in interviews admitting that large outside contributions could look corrupting yet refusing to criticize his conservative colleagues for doing just that.

Bradley has had some advertising fun of her own pushing back with the opposition’s own methods.  Usually it’s the right-wing that goes after candidates as soft on crime, but on the Internet she let them hang one of their own, using a rant by conservative talk radio’s  Mark Belling slamming  Daley for letting a vicious child abuser off lightly.  Her point is simple – if even the right-wing mouths don’t trust his  record, why should their voters?

However, Bradley is not campaigning on the main issue that brought her headlines in 2011.  This was the case when conservative darling Prosser put his hands around her neck, she has said, in an attempt to strangle her, which fits his reputation for temper. He said he was trying to restrain her passion as they argued a case.  

That resulted in probes of the “chokehold incident” but Prosser has the one-vote conservative majority on the court and his buddies proclaimed ignorance of what happened.  When the designated state agency on judicial conduct, the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, charged Prosser with violating judicial ethics of conduct in 2012, any further action by them was blocked by his ideological buddies.   

Bradley is putting partisan bias center stage April 7 – for solid judicial reasons. After all, it was a conservative US Supreme Court in 2009 that went after a West Virginia justice for not recusing himself when he took nearly $3 million in campaign money from a coal mine owner before ruling in the donor’s favor. After that clear expression of outrage from the highest court in the land, other states took steps to strengthen their recusal rules in cases of flagrantly large and result-pointed financial donations.

 Not Wisconsin right-wingers.  In 2010 in a resolution WMC helped write, the high court said size of financial contributions should not be the sole reason for recusal. The rationale was curious. What if to embarrass conservative justices, someone in the other camp – oh, say, like wealthy George Soros -- gave them a lot of money to force them to recuse? Frankly it’s doubtful that the left is as eager as the right to waste millions of dollars on a blocking move rather than an issue of conscience.  But the “what if” was a tacit admission that no one gives such enormous money without expecting special favors. Not surprisingly Bradley issued an outraged dissent.  

Today after months of trying to dodge any case involving hefty campaign money and possible instructions from those same rich backers whose largesse they enjoyed, the state high court has been forced to take up three John Doe cases with exactly that conundrum. Imagine their dilemma! They know their masters in Madison and in the Koch world are expecting them to halt all such John Does yet they also know the US Supremes, who have the bigger whip, are also watching.   To make it tougher, both the John Doe special prosecutor, a known Republican, and many major law professors have gone to court to say the conservative justices should recuse themselves.  

To know how ethics ought to work, the conservatives on the court and in the voting booth could just ask Bradley.  She has recused herself from the John Doe cases because of a narrow reason -- her son once practiced law with an attorney in the case. That is a sensitivity Wisconsin desperately needs to keep.

Contrast that with the GOP legislative majority bile. They are not waiting on the courts or frankly the voters. The GOP in March introduced a bill that would curb John Doe powers ahead of any court decision. And, with some of the same sponsors, a  companion bill to Joint Resolution 1 is moving through the legislature– a blatant example of ageism by attempting  to remove Abrahamson midterm from office because her age, 81,  is the same as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s.  Apparently the GOP did not notice that their right-wing Supreme hero, Antonin Scalia, is 79 and the attempt to equate age with sharpness is not a winning argument with the older voters the conservatives have long counted on. 

Our system of checks and balances has been turned into a system of big checks and big imbalances. Wisconsin voters  shouldn’t need the lessons of Selma to understand how only consistent voting can reverse this mess.  

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 famous entertainment 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 and movies at domsdomain.

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