Wisconsin high court hopefuls to speak at Democratic event

Two liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates are set to speak at the state Democratic convention this weekend, further blurring the boundaries in what’s supposed to be a nonpartisan race.

Jill Karofsky and Ed Fallone are scheduled to deliver speeches Saturday afternoon at the convention in Milwaukee, as they work to unseat conservative Justice Dan Kelly in the 2020 spring elections.

Judicial candidates are officially nonpartisan, but Republicans and Democrats typically rally behind Supreme Court candidates, turning the races into political battles. Candidate appearances at overtly partisan events such as party conventions can create questions about their impartiality on the bench.

Justice-elect Brian Hagedorn drew criticism this month when he appeared at the state Republican convention in Oshkosh and thanked attendees for electing him, saying they had “saved” the court by ensuring that conservative justices will maintain their majority and calling on them to support Kelly. The Racine Journal Times attacked Hagedorn in an editorial, calling his statements “overtly political.”

Karofsky is a Dane County circuit judge. Sachin Chheda, a political consultant working with Karofsky’s campaign, pointed out that liberal Supreme Court candidates Rebecca Dallet and Tim Burns appeared at the 2017 Democratic convention. Dallet went on to win an open seat on the court.

It’s appropriate for a judge or judicial candidate to campaign in front of a partisan audience as long as they don’t appeal to partisan interests or act partisan, Chheda said Thursday. Karofsky plans to talk about her experience and the importance of an independent judiciary when she takes the stage in Milwaukee, he said.

“A judge who’s partisan to the left is just as bad as a judge that’s partisan to the right,” Chheda said. “The question to ask is, what did the candidate say, more than the audience to which they say it.”

Fallone, a Marquette University law professor, also pointed to Dallet’s and Burns’ convention appearances as precedent and said he’ll make a “nonpartisan appeal” to convention goers. He plans to talk about how the state Supreme Court should not be a political prize and how judges should behave independently.

“I don’t think those are partisan points,” he said.

Kelly’s campaign manager, Daniel Suhr, didn’t immediately respond to an email Thursday seeking comment on Karofsky’s and Fallone’s convention appearances. Charles Nichols, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, also didn’t immediately respond to an email.

Michael LeRoy, a University of Illinois law professor who studies partisanship in judicial elections, said nothing expressly prohibits a judicial candidate from giving a speech to a political party. But Wisconsin’s judicial code prohibits judges from doing anything that casts doubt on their impartiality and that standard extends to judicial candidates, LeRoy said. Appearing at a party convention would seem to conflict with that ideal, he said.

“We’re seeing in both state and federal judgeships a more politicized candidate or nominee,” LeRoy said. “Impartiality used to matter. Now a partisan viewpoint is a selection criterion. What that suggests is courts are becoming another form of the legislature. We are evolving from three branches of government to two branches of government. And we’re losing an essential pillar of our democracy.”

The Democratic convention is set to begin Saturday morning and run through midday Sunday at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino. Saturday’s agenda also includes speeches from U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Gov. Tony Evers.

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