After the referral of a controversial bill to the state Supreme Court, experts said the upcoming Supreme Court election would intensify partisan battles that have the potential to politically charge the fundamentally non-partisan branch of government.
A state appeals court referred the case investigating an alleged violation of open meetings law surrounding the passage of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill Thursday, sparking reactions from all parties that see the upcoming Supreme Court election between a conservative incumbent and liberal-leaning challenger as a determining factor in the outcome of the case.
The day the case was referred to the Supreme Court, Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, issued a letter to Justice David Prosser, up for election on April 5, questioning his “fitness for the Supreme Court,” and addressing comments he made last year to Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. The incident, in which Prosser allegedly called Abrahamson a “bitch,” was made public last week.
Berceau’s assistant Traci Peloquin would not comment on the letter, but said the timing of the letter’s release did not carry a political agenda.
Friday, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO union released a statement drawing parallels between Prosser and Walker.
“Prosser’s rulings as a Justice clearly show his commitment to Scott Walker’s brand of scorched-earth politics against working families,” Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, said in a statement.
Although the Republican Party of Wisconsin has not released a position on the upcoming election, they did voice opposition to the chief justice.
The RPW is pressuring Abrahamson to remove herself from the case should it be taken up by the court, questioning whether the $100,000 in donations to her campaign from labor unions could affect her ruling.
These attacks aimed at Supreme Court justices have less to do with their judicial qualifications and more to do with the politics surrounding the contentious budget repair bill, University of Wisconsin political science professor Charles Franklin said.
“Much of it is political,” Franklin said. “It will be practically unique in the history of Wisconsin if the court takes such a politically charged case right at a moment when a justice is up for election.”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is currently unusually divided and the conflict is spilling into public view, Franklin said, referring to how the comments made by Prosser to the chief justice became public so close to an election. He said the timing of the release made it hard not to see a political motivation.
The race is being polarized like very few others, which Executive Director of Common Cause Wisconsin Jay Heck said is unfair given the traditionally non-partisan reputation of the court.
“The politicking is fast and furious,” Heck said. “Prosser has been portrayed as pro-Walker and Kloppenburg as anti-Walker, which is not entirely fair because the Supreme Court is supposed to be about non-partisanship.”
The voter’s decision should be based on qualifications and judicial temperament, Heck said.
Still, Heck said he views the increased interest in the Supreme Court election as positive for the direction of the state.