A hand-painted sign highlighting Wisconsin’s April 5 state Supreme Court election declares: “This May Be the Most Important Vote You Ever Cast.”
That’s a bold claim.
But it won’t be dismissed by many observers of the six-week long struggle between Governor Scott Walker and the public-employee unions he seeks to dismantle with aggressive anti-labor legislation and tactics.
The Supreme Court election in Wisconsin—one of a number of Midwestern states that elect jurists, in keeping with the progressive tradition that said all powerful officials should be accountable to the people—will provide the first real measure of the strength of the mass movements that have developed to challenge Walker, his agenda and his political allies.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court currently has a 4-3 conservative majority that is expected to be sympathetic to Walker’s agenda as it faces extended litigation. But one of the conservative justices is facing an unexpectedly hard re-election fight. If he loses, the balance on the court will tip toward a majority that is more likely to check and balance the governor who has emerged as the authoritarian face of the national push by conservatives to break public-sector unions.
As such, the Wisconsin race is being watched closely by the governor’s critics—who have taken to calling the state “Fitzwalkerstan,” a combination of the governor’s name and that of his legislative consigliere, Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald—and by Walker’s allies in corporate boardrooms and right-wing think tanks far from Wisconsin.
On Friday, Sarah Palin endorsed the conservative incumbent, Justice David Prosser, who has also benefitted from expensive television advertising campaign’s funded by corporate donors.
But Prosser, a veteran political player and jurist who was expected until just a few weeks ago to coast to victory, appears to be in serious political trouble—at least in part because he has aligned himself so closely with the controversial governor and the Republican right. On Thursday, his campaign co-chair, a popular former governor, abruptly quit the campaign and endorsed Prosser’s challenger.
That’s unprecedented. But so, too, is Prosser’s determination to politicize what is supposed to be a nonpartisan judicial position.
Prosser has departed from the state’s best judicial values and traditions to identify himself as a conservative who will make decisions based on his political ideology and his political associations—particularly his association with Governor Walker—rather than the law.
His opponent, veteran Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, has done the opposite, positioning herself as a rule-of-law contender who would serve as an independent jurist rather than an ally of the governor.
If that sounds like a stark choice, it is. And Prosser is the one who has made it so.