Driving to Monday night's debate between the candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court, I listened for a few minutes to WIBA, Madison's conservative talk radio outlet. Brian Schimming was going on (and on) about the unbelievably offensive ad now airing against incumbent Justice David Prosser, and how atrocious it was that challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg had not renounced it, even though she had nothing to do with it.
Schimming said this was especially egregious because, without the support of the Greater Wisconsin Committee, which is running this ad, Kloppenburg's campaign would have no chance whatsoever. It was just a tragic case of outside money coming in to influence the election with scurrilous attack ads. For shame.
Just then the station went to commercial break. It was a scurrilous attack ad against Kloppenburg, run by the conservative group Club For Growth, in which somber pronouncements about the candidate's fondness for suing farmers and killing jobs are punctuated by the stomach-turning pings of high piano notes.
The debate at the State Bar of Wisconsin's Madison headquarters was moderated by Steve Walters of Wisconsin Eye, and will be posted on its website on Tuesday. Relative to the ads that now dominate the race, it was an enlightening debate. That's not much of a boast -- compared to these ads, watching the two candidates shoot a game of pool would be enlightening. But the debate, like the campaign as a whole, was mired in the muck of the contemporary issues that surround it.
Prosser, 68, at times seemed put out by what he felt was the unfairness of his being in a competitive contest for another ten-year term. "My opponent doesn't want this race decided on qualifications or background or judicial experience," he declared in his opening statement. He called Kloppenburg, 57, "a stealth candidate," apparently because of how consistently she has resisted his efforts to peg her as an ultra-liberal ideologue, based on absolutely no evidence.
As at last Friday's "We the People" debate, broadcast throughout the state, both candidates were eager to deny that they possess the qualities their most ardent supporters believe them to possess. Prosser claimed he's a centrist on the court, and an unpredictable vote. Kloppenburg insisted she always put her personal political beliefs aside in her 22 years as an assistant attorney general, and intended to do keep doing so, deciding cases on the law and the facts.
Prosser, as elsewhere, said he's been told by others, whom he refuses to name, that Kloppenburg is an "inflexible ideologue." Kloppenburg retorted, "I don't know who Justice Prosser is hearing this from -- perhaps Charlie Sykes in Milwaukee."
According to Prosser, millions of dollars are being poured into the race by people who believe Kloppenburg is going to stop Gov. Scott Walker's assault on the rights of public employee unions. "This is the most political campaign for the Supreme Court that we have ever seen," he groused. He said it was being waged on the logic of a protest sign: "Stop Walker, Vote Kloppenburg."
Kloppenburg called this "ludicrous," saying Prosser was basing his campaign on claims of collusion "that would never stand up in court." She vowed that, if elected, she would be fair and impartial, and not aligned with any "blocks" on the court. Prosser shot back that "there is no record of evidence that she's impartial." It's a clever claim, meant to obscure Prosser's own lack of evidence that she won't be.
Asked about whether candidates for Supreme Court have a constitutional right to make false statements -- a reference to his siding with two other justices in blocking disciplinary action against Justice Michael Gableman for running a misleading ad -- Prosser spoke of the "broad latitude given to political speech under the First Amendment." Kloppenburg, in turn, said "of course judicial candidates have no constitutional right to make false statements." Responded Prosser: "Then you better clean up your campaign."
It was an audacious attack, given that no statement from Kloppenburg's campaign -- or even the Greater Wisconsin Committee's ad about how Prosser four decades ago declined to prosecute a priest who was molesting children -- has been anywhere near as mendacious as the ad Gableman ran to help himself get elected in 2008.
Prosser said he would like to amend the Impartial Justice Bill that is providing public financing in this election, on account of the millions being spent by "Kloppenburg's allies" to discredit and smear him. Kloppenburg, in response, noted that she had not accused Prosser of being allied with the people who ran attack ads against her.
Both candidates said they prefer having voters elect Supreme Court justices over the merit selection process used in other states. But Prosser warned darkly that the current campaign was making it more likely that the right to elect justices will be taken away.
According to Prosser, this could very well happen "if I am not reelected" because of the millions of dollars flooding into the race on Kloppenburg's behalf. He said this threatened to "destroy judicial independence" and lead to appointed rather than elected judges -- presumably because the rankness of his defeat would invade every nostril in the state, forcing the populace to rise up and demand a new way of doing things.
A Supreme Court justice has got to dream.