Prosser, Madison attorney Joel Winnig, state Justice Department lawyer JoAnne Kloppenburg and public defender Marla Stephens will mix it up in a Feb. 15 primary. Voters will whittle the field to two survivors, who will square off in the April 5 general election. The winner gets a 10-year-term as a justice.
The primary figures to be a low-profile affair. State election officials predict only about 10 percent of the state’s voters will go to the polls.
The election has shifted the spotlight back onto a court that has faced criticism in recent years for being too beholden to special interests. Outside groups have pumped millions into the last three elections.
And the court is still taking heat over Michael Gableman’s bare-knuckle victory over Justice Louis Butler in 2008. That race saw Gableman use a contentious ad against Butler, the state’s first black justice.
The ad showed Butler’s face next to the face of a black rapist that Butler represented years earlier as a public defender. The ad claimed Butler found a “loophole” and the man went on to rape again.
Butler had won the man a new trial from the appeals court based on a procedural error, but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court. The man served his full prison term before being released and committing another offense.
Gableman’s victory gave conservatives a 4-3 majority and deepened the divide between them and the court’s liberal bloc. The acrimony was on full display last week as the factions blasted each other during a public meeting over the court’s budget, travel expenses and even the order of items on the meeting’s agenda.
Typically seen as a member of the conservative bloc, Prosser has a quiet demeanor but an array of Republican-leaning allies, including former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who Prosser lists as his campaign chairman. His campaign didn’t respond to several messages from The Associated Press. On his website, Prosser describes himself as a judicial conservative but cautions he doesn’t make up the facts to advance “some ideological objective.”
He has history on his side—Gableman’s victory over Butler was the first time a sitting justice lost an election in 41 years —but he’s still applied for public campaign financing. He must limit his fund-raising and spending, a move likely designed to show he’s distancing himself from special interests.
Winnig, meanwhile, is a family law attorney who specializes in divorce cases. He called the rancor on the court “appalling.” If he becomes a justice, he promised to demand Gableman resign and Gov. Scott Walker appoint Prosser in Gableman’s place, saying he respects Prosser that much.
He said he often agrees with the court’s liberal minority and sees himself as the only candidate strong enough to stand up to the conservatives. He, too, has applied for public campaign financing, saying he wants to show someone can run for the court on principles.
“I’m not one of these go along to get along people. I’m a very independent thinker,” Winnig said. “I’m convinced now more than ever that I am actually the answer. I am the guy. I’m the only one who can do it.”
Kloppenburg has worked for the Justice Department for more than two decades, handling a wide spectrum of cases but focusing mostly on environmental enforcement. She also has applied for public financing to show she’s free of big spending and partisan attacks, she said.
A former Peace Corps volunteer, Kloppenburg said she won’t decide cases on personal beliefs or political agendas. “People are losing confidence in the court’s independence and impartiality,” Kloppenburg said. “Once I’m on the court, I will first listen respectfully to the parties . and the other justices.”
Stephens is the director of the state public defender officer’s appellate division.
She is the only candidate who hasn’t sought public financing. She said she anticipates outside groups will attack her for being a public defender, equating the profession to being soft on crime—a tactic used against Butler—and she wants to have enough money to fight back. She said she doesn’t have a pro-defendant or pro-prosecution bias, saying “facts are facts” in a case.
She said the court can’t act as a check on the executive and legislative branches of government as long as Prosser remains on the bench. Republicans control the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature.
She also pledged to try to improve the atmosphere between the justices.
“I’m not naïve. I’m not going to be able to fix things on the court. But I do know I’m going to try to improve the relationships between the justices. You do it by being respectful, by looking for commonality of interest, searching for places where we can reach consensus.”