Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were among the US Supreme Court justices who were invoked Tuesday night as role models by the candidates in the race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court that will be on the ballot April 5.
But did either of them ever have to go through the kind of election campaigning that Justice Rebecca Bradley and Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg are immersed in now?
A one-hour debate between Kloppenburg and Bradley at Eckstein Hall was moderated by Mike Gousha, Marquette Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy and a political analyst for WISN television. The debate was shown live on WISN and other stations around the state, with some stations scheduling it for broadcast later.
The debate was the third in less than a week hosted by Gousha at Eckstein Hall and televised live by WISN. Candidates for Milwaukee County executive and mayor of Milwaukee debated last week.
The positive side of the Supreme Court debate: Viewers statewide had the opportunity to see lengthy presentations from the two on why each is the better candidate.
Each had ample opportunity for the two to show the differences in their judicial orientations. In some ways, those were as clear as the differences between Scalia, the legendary conservative justice who did recently and who was cited by Bradley, and Ginsburg, one of the more liberal members of the court who was cited (along with Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy) by Kloppenburg. Bradley praised Scalia’s “originalist” approach to constitutional interpretation. Kloppenburg said she followed those who see the constitution as a living document.
The negative side had two elements: One was that the race, and the debate, have an inescapable partisan context, with each candidate saying she is nonpartisan and it is the other injecting partisanship into the race. Bradley is being supported by Republican leaders and conservative organizations. Kloppenburg has been endorsed by labor unions and many liberal groups.
The other element involved the turns the race has taken, including news reports about things Bradley wrote when she was a college student 24 years ago and about her involvement in a family court case 14 years ago when she represented a man with whom she was romantically involved.
Bradley apologized for her college opinions, including severe comments about people who were gay or who voted for Bill Clinton for president in 1992. She said she had grown and changed. “There is such a thing as redemption,” she said. Kloppenburg said Bradley’s writings then still were part of considering who she is now.
Bradley attacked a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about the family court matter as “a vile piece of garbage masquerading as journalism.” She asked Kloppenburg if she would disavow the story. Kloppenburg said it was based on facts, said something about Bradley’s legal judgment, and was “fair game.”
It made for a sharp and at times tense hour, although one that remained civil throughout.
Maybe the partisan and more combatively negative elements of the session are a comment on the state of races for the Wisconsin Supreme Court now and in recent years.
But their presence doesn’t change – in fact, actually increases – the value of providing thousands of voters a substantial chance to hear the candidates at length in a civil, non-partisan forum.