Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker plays politics to win. As a political careerist who has run two dozen primary and general election campaigns since 1990, he leaves nothing to chance. And the partisans who have allied with him have embraced the view that the best way to prevail in politics is to “have it all”—control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
This week, Walker’s allies are focused on securing control of the judicial branch of state government in Wisconsin. The Republican Party of Wisconsin and groups that have consistently backed Walker’s agenda are leading the charge to oust a state Supreme Court justice who has championed judicial independence and to change the way in which the high court is organized—with an eye toward ousting another independent jurist from the position of chief justice.
The Wisconsin fights, which will play out in two statewide votes Tuesday, have received little national attention. Yet they are instructive for those who seek to understand the relentless pursuit of power by Walker and his political allies—and the approach that the all-but-announced Republican presidential contender and his associates would bring to Washington if they realize their national ambitions.
Since his election in 2010, Walker and his legislative cronies have grabbed every opening to secure and advance their authority. They have employed ambitious gerrymandering schemes, reorganized the election calendar, rewritten voting rules and invited the wealthiest men in America to flood the state with special-interest money. They have disregarded rules and regulations designed to maintain transparency and fairness. They have played what Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe as “winner-take-all politics.”
Since the wave election of 2014, Walker and his Republican allies have enjoyed absolute control of the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. They have used that control to further an anti-labor agenda—begun in 2011 with assaults on public-sector unions—by enacting so-called “right to work” legislation. And they plan to do a lot more. In addition to proposals to cut funding for the University of Wisconsin and expand private K-12 voucher schools using money that would otherwise be earmarked for public education, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Walker has plans for “ending state funding for highway beautification, and Wisconsin Public Radio and Television; phasing out a long-standing racial integration program for students; and leaving most prison watchtowers vacant at night.”
Yet, Walker and his partisans are not satisfied.
The ability to roll over partisan opposition in the legislative branch of government is not enough. Walker and his allies have faced a number of legal challenges to their power grabs. So the governor’s allies have made gaining and maintaining control of the state’s highest court a high priority. After several of what the Brennan Center for Justice has identified as among the most expensive and negative state judicial races in recent American history, Walker’s Republican and corporate allies have secured a majority on what is supposed to be a nonpartisan court.
“Judicial elections are supposed to be non-partisan, but partisan politics and large political donations from outside the state have played a key role in Wisconsin Supreme Court races in recent years,” observed a report published last week by the Wisconsin Gazette. “The Koch brothers-backed Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce have spent an estimated $8.3 million to elect right-wing justices in Wisconsin, giving conservatives and supporters of Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda a majority on the bench.”
But there are still three justices who have refused to bow to pro-Walker partisanship, and one of them is the powerful chief justice.
On Tuesday, Walker’s allies hope to oust one of the three remaining justices who maintain a commitment to judicial independence. And they are seeking to amend the state constitution to alter the method for organizing the high court’s leadership—in what is broadly understood as a move to oust the chief justice. Both initiatives come as the court prepares to hear three cases involving a John Doe investigation into the campaigns of Walker and his political allies.
The sitting justice who faces a direct challenge Tuesday is Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who has served on the high court for two decades, earning national recognition for her legal scholarship and work ethic. Justice Bradley is running a traditional reelection campaign that emphasizes the importance of judicial independence, respect for the rule of law and a nonpartisan judiciary.
Bradley has earned backing from Democrats, independents and old-school Republicans, from organized labor and responsible business leaders. In endorsing her, the LaCrosse Tribune noted Bradley’s “broad bipartisan support,” while the Wausau Daily Herald argued that “Bradley has shown an ability to be impartial; Daley has seemingly intentionally campaigned on the promise not to be.”
This distinction has led to the targeting of Justice Bradley by the relentless partisans associated with Walker and his legislative allies.
Justice Bradley has also been targeted by conservatives on the court. Justice David Prosser, against whom the Judicial Commission has filed ethics charges stemming from an incident in which Prosser placed his hands around Justice Bradley’s neck, has donated $500 to the campaign of Bradley’s challenger, Rock County Judge James Daley. Prosser, a former Republican legislative leader, worked closely with Walker when both served in the state Assembly.
Republican efforts on behalf of Daley have been widely reported.
“Daley accepted a $7,000 in-kind contribution from the Wisconsin Republican Party and is speaking at GOP events around the state, ” according to the Associated Press. That should come as no surprise, as Daley’s campaign ads position him as an ally of the governor and legislative Republicans—going so far as to hail the governor’s anti-labor agenda and the enactment of a restrictive voter-ID law. Wisconsin governors do not usually make endorsements in judicial races, and Walker has avoided formally stating his preferences, but there is no missing the message of Daley’s campaign ads, which accuse Justice Bradley for trying “to undermine Gov. Walker’s reforms.” The ads are unprecedented in their partisanship, leaving little doubt that Daley would align himself with a particular faction inside the executive and legislative branches and, by extension, with the political paymasters that sustain this faction.
The second vote of consequence for the judiciary involves an assault on Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Re-elected in 2009 with almost 60 percent of the vote, Abrahamson is popular with the people of Wisconsin, respected by lawyers and judges, and highly regarded in her role as the administrative head of the state courts system. She is so widely respected nationally that, during Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, Justice Abrahamson’s name turned up on lists of potential US Supreme Court nominees.
Fiercely independent, she has a reputation for spurning pressure from politicians of both parties and for refusing to bend to special interests. So politicians and special-interest groups associated with Walker are trying to oust Justice Abrahamson from her role as chief justice by amending the state constitution to end the 126-year-old practice of having the senior justice (who has been elected the most times by the voters) serve as chief. The amendment, which was proposed and advanced by Walker allies in the legislature, would establish a new system for selecting the chief justice that allow justices who have supported Walker’s agenda to replace Justice Abrahamson with one of their own.
“This is clearly targeted at the current chief justice because certain groups don’t want her as chief justice,” argues former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who was appointed to the court by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.
“For more than 100 years, that post has gone to the most senior member on the court, which is a wise and prudent procedure, which cuts done on infighting and jockeying and politicization,” explains Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Matt Rothschild. “But now, because anti-democratic forces have a vendetta against Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, they’ve put a referendum (on the ballot) to change that process so that a majority of the justices decide who is chief justice.”
Walker’s allies are all-in for this one.
“Outside groups have made late expenditures in two judicial contests on Wisconsin’s April 7 ballot,” report the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake, based on an analysis of Federal Communications Commission records conducted by the groups. “Though traditional big spenders are supporting groups on either side of the ballot measure, the bulk of the spending thus far is a single $600,000 contribution from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to a group in favor of [the amendment].”
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a corporate group that does not reveal its donors, has long championed Walker and his legislative agenda. Shortly before he signed Wisconsin’s “right to work” law—“a top policy reform on the WMC public policy agenda”—Walker appeared at the organization’s annual “Business Day in Madison” event, which was sponsored by Walmart and Koch brothers–owned Georgia-Pacific.
Noting the heavy spending by WMC in support of the proposed amendment, Justice and Stake executive director Bert Brandenburg said, “The brawl over Wisconsin’s courts has moved to a new arena. But many Wisconsin residents still don’t realize that Question 1 is a political effort to tilt the court to one side, not a good-government measure.”
The one side is that of Scott Walker, whose allies are working hard to assure that the governor will have one-size-fits-all control of state government.