Four consecutive victories have produced a level of unwarranted complacency among many conservatives about the state’s Supreme Court.  

Time for a wake-up call.  

In only seven months the current 5-2 majority could slip to 4-3. For the left, that’s just the start. Last week a leading candidate, Tim Burns, outlined a plan for a leftwing takeover of the court in the 2019 and 2020 elections. Burns made his agenda known during a Citizens Action of Wisconsin forum for “progressive” court candidates. Joining Burns at the event was Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet.  

Burns and Dallet are campaigning actively. Each has identified the current court majority as a principle target. One of them likely will emerge from the February primary election, along with Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, and advance to the April general election. Burns is running hardest to the left. Notably, he has the endorsement of previously defeated Supreme Court candidates Joanne Kloppenburg and Ed Fallone.   

Screnock is a principled, independent jurist. He subscribes to the view that the Supreme Court’s job is not to substitute its view for that of the Legislature.   

The left of course feels otherwise. It remains furious, for example, that the Supreme Court did its job by upholding Act 10.  In that case the late Justice Patrick Crooks joined in the 5-2 court decision. Justice Crooks explicitly offered his negative assessment of the bill — on policy grounds — and just as clearly said that view was irrelevant to the Court’s role.

The left’s continuing resentment over Act 10 will fuel its effort to defeat Screnock. This is particularly so because of his highly successful role as a private attorney in developing the legal strategy that was used to defend the law. Before becoming a judge, Screnock’s sound legal reasoning prevailed not only at the Wisconsin Supreme Court but also in the federal courts.

Photo by James Wigderson

Judge Michael Screnock speaking at the 1st Congressional District GOP Fall Fest Sep. 16.

Because of his successful work on Act 10, and because Governor Scott Walker appointed him to the Sauk County bench, Screnock will be smeared in a manner similar to what Justices David Prosser and Rebecca Bradley experienced.

Screnock has several things going for him.

First, most voters will agree with him on what should be the central issue. They don’t want judges to think they are legislators.  

Second, his judicial experience trumps that of his opponents.  As one of only three Sauk County judges, he has handled the entire range of cases that comes before a circuit court, i.e., civil, family law, criminal, juvenile, drug court, etc.  

Third, his experience as a litigator includes arguing multiple cases at the appellate level, a record neither of his opponents can match.

Fourth, while his campaign so far has been low-key, he has the endorsement of a majority of the state’s sheriffs, a group that includes Democrats and Republicans.  It is always good to be the “law and order” candidate.

Finally, his “story” is impressive.  He has held positions of substantial responsibility in municipal government in three Wisconsin cities.  He was graduated magna cum laude from UW Law School where he was a member of the Order of the Coif. After only three years at Michael Best, he was picked from among the many lawyers at that firm to help successfully defend Act 10 in the state and federal courts.

The obvious problem of course is that many who are reading this know little about Screnock. A serious, nuts-and-bolts campaign needs to energize the base that prevailed in the Prosser and Bradley races. Conservatives, independents, and indeed many Democrats will share Screnock’s view about the proper role of a Supreme Court justice.  

The primary election is just five months away, with the general election just two months later. At a Wispolitics forum on 2018 state elections last week not a syllable was spoken regarding this race. Unless that changes soon, the outcome next spring will be unfortunate.

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