Supreme Court Candidates Debate: Testy Talk About Collegiality

Four thoughts in the aftermath of the debate Monday evening at Eckstein Hall between incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and his challenger in the April 5 election, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg:

First: As a news reporter, I’ve never covered a race for a Supreme Court seat. I was struck by how awkward the debate is, compared to the plain old partisan races I’ve covered fairly often. It’s similar to confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court justices: Basically, if you have something substantial to say, you can’t and shouldn’t say it. You can’t say what you would do with any potential upcoming issues. Frequently, you can’t (or won’t) comment on past actions, although Prosser did talk about some past cases and said he was glad to run on his record. So you end up standing there, saying repeatedly that you are independent and nonpartisan and will judge each case fairly and with an open mind. Which both Kloppenburg and Prosser did. But it is very clear that Prosser is being backed by conservatives and Republican-oriented groups and Kloppenburg is being backed by liberals and Democratic-leaning groups. Do all these people and groups know something the candidates don’t know? Are they wrong? Or is this a curious exercise in avoiding talking about the issues, even though everyone seems to know what you’d say if you did?

Two: I’ve been at some testy and tense debates and joint appearances by candidates in various races, but this one was way up the list, if it wasn’t the champion on my personal list.

The acrimonious atmosphere that has categorized the recent work (and public relations) of the Wisconsin Supreme Court has certainly carried over into this race. While both candidates said they were the right choice for people who wanted to see the court move forward with more collegiality, there was not much goodwill flowing between the two. Kloppenburg said Prosser had denigrated some justices and his conduct had made relations worse on the court (she did not mention the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story that reported he had insulted Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, but she almost certainly didn’t need to). Prosser said Kloppenburg had let partisanship into her campaign and wanted to turn the election into a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker. He also said that Kloppenburg is “incredibly envious” of his record helping people as a prosecutor, while slighting her record in environmental work with the attorney general’s office as involving “the length of (boat) docks.” Kloppenburg responded, “I have improved the quality of life for communities around the state.”

Three: Prosser made what I would say is the most amazing statement by a candidate I have ever heard in person. He said Kloppenburg had left statements from supporters on her campaign’s Facebook page that were inappropriate, including this one: “Stop the turd, vote Kloppenburg.” He said, “Am I turd?”  He was in front of a bank of cameras. Moments like that can – and I suspect will – live forever on Youtube.  

Four: My bet is that if you entered the event with doubts in your mind about whether statewide election is a good way to pick Supreme Court justices, you didn’t leave there with your doubts allayed. On the other hand, you did get some significant glimpses of both candidates for use in guiding your vote on April 5. And if you weren’t there, you can watch the Wisconsin Eye tape of the session here.

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