MADISON — Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Michael Screnock accused his opponent, Rebecca Dallet, of being a “liberal activist” who won’t uphold the rule of law during their first debate Friday, while she said he was beholden to conservative special interests including the Republican Party.
Both denied they would be partisan “rubber stamps.”
Dallet, a Milwaukee County judge since 2008, is backed by liberals while Screnock, a Sauk County judge since 2015, is supported by conservatives. The race is officially nonpartisan and the winner will be elected on April 3 to a 10-year term. Justice Michael Gableman, part of the 5-2 conservative majority, is not seeking a second term.
Much of the debate focused on whether Screnock and Dallet would be independent arbiters of the law or advocate for the agendas of partisan interests that are backing them.
“My opponent is bought and paid for by the big special interests,” Dallet said, arguing that the $800,000 spent by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the state GOP to help Screnock shows he will be beholden to them.
Screnock was appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and worked as an attorney defending Walker’s Act 10 union law and GOP-drawn political boundary maps.
He’s also won the endorsement of anti-abortion groups. As a college student in the 1980s, Screnock was twice arrested for protesting outside a Madison abortion clinic.
Screnock said he put his advocacy aside when he became a judge.
“Everything changed when I raised my right hand and I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America,” he said.
Screnock argued that Dallet wanted to push a liberal agenda on the Supreme Court. She has argued during the campaign that the rights of women, clean air and water, and equal protection are all under attack. Dallet also ran a television ad, which she defended, criticizing President Donald Trump.
Dallet emphasized her experience, working 11 years as a prosecutor and a decade as a judge hearing almost 12,000 cases. Screnock said his experience working 12 years for local governments, and as a private attorney for eight years before becoming a judge, gives him a unique perspective no one else on the court has.
Dallet said Screnock’s endorsement by the National Rifle Association — which has said he vowed to uphold the group’s pro-gun platform — shows he will be an activist for them and other conservative issues. Screnock denied he made any promises to the NRA other than to uphold the rule of law.
Dallet and Screnock also clashed over when judges should recuse themselves from cases. The Wisconsin State Journal reported Friday that Dallet presided over at least one case involving attorneys from her husband’s law firm. This week, she recused herself from three recent cases after the State Journal asked about it.
The state judicial code does not preclude Dallet from hearing those cases, but she’s made a point of saying in the campaign she wouldn’t do so.
Screnock faulted Dallet for hearing cases involving attorneys who have given to her campaign, something the law allows judges to do.
Dallet said her support from attorneys comes as a result of her campaigning across Wisconsin, something she accused her opponent of not doing. Screnock said he’s put more than 11,000 miles on his car traveling the state.
The second and final debate is March 30, just days before the April 3 election.