Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Elections Are the ‘Star Wars’ of Political Sagas

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Elections Are the ‘Star Wars’ of Political Sagas

Liberals hope to wrest control from conservatives after years of epic battles.

Both sides are powering up their video lightsabers. The droid armies are moving in to take over the phone banks. And if you’re not up for another round of black-robed electoral combat, it’s time to flee to a state far, far away.

Every Wisconsin Supreme Court election is a drama in itself, and this spring’s contest between Appeals Judges Lisa Neubauer and Brian Hagedorn is no exception. But taken together, the biggest 21st-century campaigns become an epic saga, not unlike Star Wars.

In fact, the race between liberal-backed Neubauer and conservative-backed Hagedorn is the second installment in a trilogy that could shift control of the high court to the left — or swing it even further to the right. If liberals take over the court, it would reverse the outcome of the four-part prequel series that cemented the bench’s conservative majority.

And with Hagedorn increasingly under siege, a Neubauer victory would set the stage for a climactic 2020 battle of such galactic proportions that one observer predicts it would overshadow even the simultaneous Wisconsin presidential primary.

Here’s the story so far:

Episode I: The Right Strikes Back

Liberals have gained a 4-3 majority after Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s appointment of Louis Butler, then a Milwaukee County judge, to replace conservative Justice Diane Sykes, now a federal appeals judge. Alarmed by the court’s leftward turn, conservative forces rally behind Annette Ziegler, then a Washington County judge, in the 2007 race to replace retiring conservative Justice Jon Wilcox. Ziegler defeats Madison attorney Linda Clifford — preventing liberals from widening their lead to 5-2 — in a $5.8 million campaign that vaporizes previous spending records.

Episode II: Revenge of the WMC

Butler, Wisconsin’s first African-American justice, runs for a full term in 2008. He becomes the first incumbent justice defeated since 1967, after a racially charged contest that hands conservatives a 4-3 majority but draws ethics complaints against victor Michael Gableman, then a Burnett County judge. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group, and the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee each spend more than both candidates combined in the $6 million campaign.

Episode III: Attack of the Unions

Wisconsin Republicans’ new hero, Gov. Scott Walker, has struck a blow against liberals with Act 10, slashing collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Enraged labor forces mobilize for JoAnne Kloppenburg, then an assistant attorney general, in 2011, hoping to oust conservative Justice David Prosser and swing the court majority to liberals who could overturn Act 10. Prosser barely keeps his seat after a recount.

Episode IV: Return of the Judge

Walker has appointed conservatives Rebecca Bradley and Daniel Kelly to replace the late left-of-center Justice N. Patrick Crooks and the retired Prosser, boosting the right’s majority to 5-2. When Bradley runs for a full term in 2016, Kloppenburg — now an appeals court judge — comes back for a second battle. But the Madison liberal loses by a wider margin than before.

Episode V: A New Liberal Hope

The election of President Donald Trump has galvanized the left. Gableman decides against seeking a second term, setting up a 2018 contest between Rebecca Dallet, then a Milwaukee County judge, and Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock. Dallet scores the first liberal victory for an open court seat in more than 20 years, narrowing the conservative majority to 4-3.

Episodes to Come:

All that leads to the current race to replace Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the retiring liberal lion. If Hagedorn wins, conservatives would regain a 5-2 majority and could retain control no matter what happens when Kelly seeks a full term in 2020.

But Hagedorn has been battered by repeated revelations of his opposition to gay rights, leading some business groups to withdraw or withhold their support. That positions Neubauer to capitalize on the momentum of Dallet’s victory last spring and of Democratic wins in all statewide elections last fall, as well as the undefeated record of southeastern Wisconsin’s female judges in Supreme Court races.

If Neubauer wins, holding conservatives to their current one-vote majority, control of the court will depend on Kelly’s race next spring, when the huge field of Democratic presidential contenders is expected to draw masses of liberal voters to the polls. This prospect worries Republicans so much that they considered rescheduling the presidential primary to separate it from the high court election, retreating only when it became obvious the move would be both expensive and impractical.

Kelly “is probably a goner unless Trump does not run for re-election” and a contested GOP presidential primary draws enough Republican voters to balance the Democratic turnout, says UW-Milwaukee Professor Emeritus Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic lawmaker. But that doesn’t mean conservatives will go down without a fight.

“The focus on Justice Kelly’s survival (in the election scheduling debate) is a sign of what a donnybrook that race is going to be,” Lee says. He predicts so many Supreme Court ads will flood the airwaves that “the presidential primary will seem like a secondary story… This is the whole ballgame.”

A final confrontation with everything at stake? That would be a fitting climax to an epic saga.



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.