Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser has found himself in the middle of the melee over the new law curtailing collective bargaining that Gov. Scott Walker signed in early March. Prosser, a judicial conservative, faces reelection April 5, and supporters of challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg are trying to turn the race into a referendum on Walker. Prosser's ouster could overturn judicial conservatives' 4-3 edge on the high court.
The political fallout from Walker's recent legislative victory is just beginning, and the Supreme Court race shows that union backlash is coming on every front. Unions and their supporters are beginning efforts to recall Wisconsin Republican senators, gathering signatures for petitions for recall votes. But the court race for a 10-year term is more immediate and could have a deeper impact, determining the future of the once-a-decade redistricting plan. Republicans will control redistricting in the legislature, but the plan will likely end up before the state's high court.
Walker's collective bargaining reforms also could end up before the state Supreme Court; a county judge has temporarily blocked the law from taking effect. But if the court threw out the bill over a procedural issue, Republican state Rep. Michelle Litjens told me, "We would just pass it again."
Independent political groups can heavily influence Wisconsin judicial elections: The candidates are publicly financed with $300,000, a measly amount for a statewide race, which means they can't raise money themselves. Campaign spending on the last judicial race amounted to $6 million, demonstrating the influence of outsiders, according to Richard Esenberg, a professor at Marquette Law School and lawyer who has cases before the state Supreme Court. "The candidates really don't do much at all," Esenberg told me.
The Greater Wisconsin Committee, an independent political organization that opposed Walker's budget reforms, has internet ads with an image of Prosser alongside Walker and written underneath, "Prosser = Walker." The group is also running television ads linking Prosser to Walker and questioning his impartiality. Esenberg said he expects conservative groups to join the fray too on Prosser's behalf.
Volunteers for Kloppenburg have campaigned for her at union rallies opposing Walker, though she said in a recent debate, "I have been very careful not to participate in any of those rallies or take any positions." Earlier she stated that Prosser "will favor the agenda of Gov. Walker and the Republican legislature." Kloppenburg's campaign did not return a request for comment.
"The attempt is to make this into a referendum . . . but I do not believe this is what this race is about," Prosser's campaign manager Brian Nemoir told me. "There should be two issues: the record of the incumbent and the qualifications of the challenger."
Prosser was at one time a Republican state legislator, but since he became a justice 12 years ago, the Wisconsin Law Journal analyzed his votes and determined that he was the least predictable of the conservative bloc on the high court. "These people who think they know how these candidates are going to vote are fooling themselves," said Esenberg. "I study the court for a living, and I don't know how they're going to vote."