Monday, October 12, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

Wis State Journal (John Hart
photo) caught Bradley's
look as Walker introduced
her as his choice.
Everyone knew which other shoe, or high heel, Scott Walker was going to drop when respected Supreme  Court Justice N. Patrick Crooks, whose 10-year seat was up for voters to decide next April, had the temerity to die in office just as Walker wanted sole media attention to his withdrawal from the presidential race.

On hearing the Sept. 21 news Walker gave cursory official sorrow as he announced his own withdrawal and then stepped in to tell the electorate how to decide on a court replacement. 

With only a few months to go in the current court session, with the outcome of cases affecting the governor’s supporters already safely in conservative hands with a 4-2 majority – particularly a prosecutorial request to revive the John Doe process – he still felt  compelled to tilt the public vote to the least qualified candidate. 

Could it have anything to do with reviving his political fortunes in a state angry at being left a sloppy two-year budget and generally abandoned during his fruitless run for the White House? That eight months was certainly much longer than the court term he said had to be immediately filled. 

Geske discusses with Gousha the unhappy
partisan nature of court choices today.
As first step, fooling no one, Walker said he would spread a wide quality net for the interim selection to the high court.  Untrue, since this state is loaded not just  with qualified candidates but THREE former justices chosen from both sides of the aisle – Jon Wilcox and Louis Butler for two, and professor and restorative justice leader Janine Geske, once an easy choice to fill the county exec vacancy ahead of Walker’s election and even an easier choice as interim Marquette law dean. (At least Channel 12 reporter Mike Gousha was attuned enough to interview Geske about how the high court vacancy should be handled and drew some gentle remarks about the growingly unpleasant partisanship.) 

The most experienced and earliest announced candidates for Crooks’ seat, Milwaukee Circuit Judge Joe Donald and Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, refused to apply, saying that call should be the people’s.  The third candidate –  coaxed to enter the race despite her limited bench experience – did apply and she was clearly going to get it, given Walker’s track record of personal favoritism to her and the money wielding Club for Growth. 

But for  show,  the Walker ranch had to stake out a Judas goat or two so the grazing would seem competitive. Madison corporate lawyer  Claude Covelli helped by applying for a seat he long wanted and had no chance of getting. Reportedly after a phone call so did longtime Walker legal ally Jim Troupis, whose service  to the monied interests had already won him appointment by Walker to a Dane County court seat where he’s already told the press he won’t face the voters next summer.   

Camouflage over, in a lavish press conference October 9, Walker revealed the obvious -- he would appoint  the least experienced candidate but a personal favorite, Rebecca Bradley. She can now flaunt a “Justice” title as she campaigns against more deeply experienced opponents free of  partisan taint, Donald and Kloppenburg.

As one veteran jurist told me in an email, “I don't think the Guv is strong on that independent judiciary thing.”

The Wisconsin press – always impressed by the bully power of the governor -- immediately said Bradley now had the inside edge.  That was even in the lead paragraph of the announcement report in the formerly independent, then Scripps, now Gannett chain newspaper known as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

Clearer heads in all camps don’t agree.

“Dangerous choice,” said a GOP senator. “She’s the answer to our prayers,” said a leader of the progressive One Wisconsin Now.   An independent consultant told me, “If you want to focus your anger at Walker’s tactics and his evasiveness, he just cleared the underbrush.”

Many other politicos think such negatives outweigh the positives. Voters who want to cast a vote against Walker now have a statewide target: Rebecca Bradley, not to be confused with the real justice Bradley named Ann, who just won election last year.

It’s not just that Walker’s favorable ratings have dropped to 37% even in the polls he likes. It’s also how many of his choices for office and staff have landed in prison, legal trouble, newspaper headlines and/or resignation.  Even people who once liked some of his views are troubled by his methods. The Bradley incursion is just the latest example they cite.

The two qualified candidates for the high court
include Milwaukee's Joe Donald.
Frankly, progressives think they have a great chance to start taking back the state in the fall of 2016 with legislative contests. But they’ve been worried about these April elections, given the historic low interest, low turnout and higher financial organization of the right wing, which has often used April to solidify their hold on secondary offices. Judicial contests and local elections spread over 72 counties, many labeled nonpartisan, fail to excite either the press or the electorate. 

Voters may rail about Walker, but they don’t have a direct shot at him until 2018, if he tries to run again, and may never if he exits office before his term expires, leaving them trying to scoop a Kleefisch out of their soup. And there was no clear way to voice disapproval in April.

Until Bradley. Now he’s tied her to him, demonstrating precisely the kind of interference and distrust of voters his take-no-prisoners manner represents at its worst.

Nor is the state high court any longer minor news voters can ignore. Walker’s flirtation in the national spotlight took care of that. There has been an outbreak of major stories in and out of Wisconsin detailing “The Destruction of the Wisconsin Supreme Court" as one New Yorker magazine piece called it:  financial corruption, political intrusion from the right and spitting matches  over who should be called chief justice.  Add those events to the other complaints about the current administration and you can see how Walker’s warm embrace is hardly what any statewide candidate wants right now. 

Other prestigious publications have also put both Walker’s style and the high court story front and center – and that was before the tampering with the civil service law and the tampering with the  independent election and ethics monitoring agency and before trying to stack the results with Bradley, which all strike many as partisan corruption cut out of the same biased cloth.

“It’s always been hard to make the courts an issue for the voters,” said a New York City journalist who covers national legal affairs, “but not now when Wisconsin politicians keep making their high court a universal laughingstock.”

Also eminently qualified: JoAnne Kloppenburg
Then there’s what  Crooks represented on the court and Bradley doesn’t, as movingly illuminated online in a tribute by former clerk and noted legal scholar Melissa L. Greipp.

A hearty Irishman with the common touch, Crooks was the quietest, least headline-making and friendliest of the state justices, often voting with the conservative block but also flashing his independence at key moments, such as criticizing the political fawning John Doe outcome. His dissent will likely live longer in lawbooks than the court’s ruling.

While a  conservative majority remains intact without a new Bradley vehicle, Crooks in stark contrast could sometimes mean to the Wisconsin court what Anthony Kennedy means to the US Supreme Court, the swing vote that can be moved by independence, heart and analysis.

In ideological terms at least, a swinger Bradley is not.  She made her mark not on the bench but in conservative social circles as an outspoken member of the Republicans’ lawyer association and president of the Milwaukee chapter of the conservative Federalist Society.

She herself must realize that Walker’s endorsement is double-edged,  stating her belief that voters won’t pay attention to who appointed whom but “look at their record on the bench.”  But if they do, she’s really dead in the water.

Until 2012 she was in private practice as in-house counsel for a software company or  defending corporate clients.  Something in her style or rich acquaintances brought her to Walker’s attention.  Despite three separate seats on state courts, she has only faced the voters once because of this friendship. 

Even that "once" was quite a close shave. Walker appointed her in 2012  to a Milwaukee circuit court vacancy but in 2013 she  was facing a formidable field,  including a top-rated assistant DA, Janet Prostasiewicz,  who had once been on Walker’s own short list  – and it took an enormous influx  of Wisconsin Club for Growth money ($167,000, virtually unprecedented in a local race) to survive. (Prostasiewicz the following year with another opening ran away with the votes and is now also a judge.)

Walker elevated Bradley last May after Judge Ralph Adam Fine’s death to the vacancy on the First District Court of Appeals (voters won’t have a say on this seat until 2018). She had barely gotten her robes wet before he elevated her to the Supremes. 

Conservative allies believe her charm and affable manner will carry her through (though one conservative and supposed ally cattily remarked to me she now needed success “deeper than the cocktail party circuit”).  It was a recognition of how seldom the voters have endorsed her advances.

Crooks’ legions of friends who attended his funeral were blunter, calling her appointment “a travesty on his memory.” They were looking forward to a robust judicial debate between Donald and Kloppenburg, who both have strong centers of support (hers Southwest Wisconsin, his Southeast)and yards of bench experience.

That may still happen.  Conservatives were desperate for Bradley’s entry because that forces a February 16 primary and an expectation that votes will split  between the more balanced Donald and Kloppenburg and leave her to face only one of them April 5. If voters are exorcised enough, though, the Bradley juggernaut could be gone by February. 

There may be yet another reason for Walker’s unnecessary push to lock down a fifth vote on the seven-member court. His hold could vanish over time and federal law could be closing in. Consider that the two justices most obedient to big money and counted on for their  self-serving votes face re-election while Walker still could be governor – Annette Ziegler in 2017 (who needed $2.6 million from Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufactures & Commerce to win) and Michael Gableman in 2018 ($2.3 million). His campaign against Butler was the ugliest and most misguided in memory

Joe Donald vs. JoAnne Kloppenburg will be interesting in any event.  She has a strong following among those who feel she was robbed of a seat on the high court in 2011 when she was beating David Prosser by a few hundred votes until Waukesha election clerk Kathy Nickolaus “found” some 14,700 “mislaid” votes after the election, giving Prosser a 7,000 margin re-election. Voters in southwestern Wisconsin promptly made amends, rewarding Kloppenburg with unopposed election in 2012 to the District IV appeals court, where she is presiding judge.

Donald is the clear choice of the influential Milwaukee legal community and county voters who backed him four times unopposed. He has nearly 20 dynamic years serving almost all branches of the circuit court from presiding judge in children’s court to active criminal court duties as well as being an influential voice in community affairs.  Praised by both prosecutors and defense attorneys for his knowledge of the law and fairness, he also is a leader in something both conservatives (Koch brothers) and progressives like – the drug treatment court, which seeks to handle nonviolent offenders in a rehabilitative way that is also far less costly than prison.

With her time in the Peace Corps and years in the  Attorney General’s office before the appeals court,  with his experience as assistant DA and judge throughout all levels of branch interaction with the public, that would be a debate the public would like hearing – unless Rebecca of Sunny Walker Farm gets in the way.

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 

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