It finally happened. This morning the campaign of state Supreme Court candidate Linda Clifford sent out a press release playing the crime card -- specifically, the charge that rival Annette Ziegler has, in her years as a circuit court judge in Washington County, been soft on pedophiles.
"Judge Ziegler has put out misleading information to try and fool the public on her record on sexual predators," asserts Clifford's campaign manager Nicholl Caruso. "But the reality is that Ziegler routinely gave the most vicious child molesters a slap on the wrist."
The press release alleges that Ziegler gave out sentences of one year or less to 60% of the child molesters in her courtroom. "Judge Ziegler's sentencing record is appalling and her attempt to mislead voters on the truth of her record is yet another example of operating below the ethical standards required of a Supreme Court justice."
Caruso's release, no doubt proffered with Clifford's full knowledge and approval, underscores the rising desperation of the Clifford camp. With less than a week to go before the April 3 election, Clifford clearly has failed to establish the statewide presence and momentum she needs to carry her through to victory.
There is a core of truth underlying the soft-on-pedophiles charge. As Isthmus has reported, there were at least two cases in which Ziegler's light sentences for people who committed sex crimes against children shocked courtroom observers and raised legitimate concerns. Those cases are fair game.
But the analysis in today's release is less defensible, because it uses numbers rather than specific cases to make its point. In fact, it's much like Kathleen Falk's attack ad on J.B. Van Hollen in the recent attorney general race, which breathlessly alleged that the vast majority of cases he prosecuted as a district attorney were settled short of trial. So what? That's true of DAs across the state.
Similarly, the numbers at the heart of the Clifford camp's charge are utterly lacking in nutritional value. So most of the time she gave child sex offenders a year or less? So what? Maybe these were low-level offenses for which most judges would have done the same. Maybe it's a good thing that Ziegler does not throw the book at criminal defendants each and every chance she gets. (The Ziegler camp promptly challenged Clifford's claims in its own release. Both are available in the related downloads at right, along with a supplementary memo from the Ziegler campaign.)
Ziegler, meanwhile, has engaged in her own deliberate attempts to exploit the ignorance of the masses, running ads about how she will "protect our families" because she's served as a prosecutor and judge. Believe it or not, state Supreme Court justices are not another branch of law enforcement. They don't break down doors in the middle of the night; they decide under what circumstances police can break down your door.
Moreover, the vast majority of the cases heard by the court involve civil matters, not criminal ones. That's why groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are spending money hand over fist to get Ziegler elected -- as often as not by proclaiming that she'll be tough on crime, which they don't care about.
Because of Ziegler's real or presumed ideological affinity to corporate interests, she has always enjoyed a huge advantage. From the start, this has been her race to lose; and, if she fails to lose, it won't be for lack of trying. Her blindness to ethical conflicts and her startling attempt to peg Clifford as some sort of monster -- literally, with a commercial that shows her in black and white with a scary font and howling wolf -- ought to knock her out of contention.
But it hasn't, and probably won't, because Clifford has failed to present a clear alternative. Like Ziegler, she is running a stealth campaign, keeping her ideological biases, which have always been the best reason to vote for her, under wraps.
Clifford should be pointing out the broad ideological differences between her and Ziegler, and affirming that she (Clifford) is more likely to rule in ways that protect citizens against police abuse, consumer fraud and the ability of injured parties to recover damages. Wisconsin has more than enough justices who are eager to defend the rights of cops and corporations; it could use one more who cares about the rest of us. Linda Clifford could fit that bill, but she's been afraid to come right out and say so.
And that's why, heading into the election, it's still Ziegler's race to lose.