Why No Challenger For Wisconsin Supreme Court Election This Spring?

Feb 10, 2017

Have you noticed that you’re not seeing many ads for the upcoming Wisconsin Supreme Court election? That’s because only one person is running – the incumbent. 

Conservative-leaning Justice Annette Ziegler has no challenger this spring – it means she’s virtually assured of another ten year term on the court.

Justice Annette Ziegler

In the past few elections for Wisconsin Supreme Court, it was hard to escape the ads. And, many were nasty. For instance, in 2008, now Justice Michael Gableman’s campaign ran an ad attacking incumbent Justice Louis Butler, for what turned out to be a misleading episode during Butler’s tenure in circuit court. Gableman went on to win the election but afterward, the Wisconsin Justice Commission ruled that the ad was deceitful and charged Gableman with ethics violations. The Supreme Court deadlocked on whether to discipline him.

In 2011, another hard fought race between Incumbent Justice David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg resulted in some unsavory advertising. A third party attacked Prosser’s record while he was Outagamie County District Attorney.  Prosser called the ad inaccurate and demanded that Kloppenburg order the special interest group to pull it. Kloppenburg refused, citing the organization’s right to free speech.

It was all quite a change from decades past, according to Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. He says state Supreme Court races used to pass largely under the public radar because people perceived them as boring.

“There’s an old saying that judicial elections were like playing a game of checkers by mail. They weren’t very exciting. People would talk about lawyer stuff which I might like, but it makes other people’s eyes glaze over,” Esenberg says.

But, Esenberg says public opinion began to change during the Doyle Administration. The high court took up several policy-related cases and a ruling on gaming compacts in particular, stirring controversy. He says some people thought the court had taken a partisan turn, so more started paying attention to its makeup.

“These justices are not just deciding technical/legal issues but they’re really making policy. They’re not just saying what the law is, they’re deciding what the law will be and when that happens, people care more about who it is that will be on the court making those decisions,” Esenberg says.

He says special interests began pouring boatloads into Wisconsin Supreme Court races about a decade ago, hoping to determine its prevailing judicial philosophy.

“The Supreme Court races have gotten so very expensive," says former Justice Janine Geske. She says it all has turned-off potential candidates this year.

“There’s so much money put into these races not only by contributions to the candidates but by independent groups, plus the nastiness of the races and the personal attacks that happen on the candidates,” she says.

Geske says she knows of several colleagues who might have been interested in running at some point, but now are saying it’s not worth it. Milwaukee Circuit Judge Joe Donald says the lack of competition in 2017 hurts Wisconsin.

“It doesn’t allow for the voters to scrutinize candidates and give them options in terms of who they feel is best qualified for the position,” Donald says.

But, Donald – who ran for the court in 2016 - says he doesn’t think this year signals a trend back toward largely uncontested Supreme Court elections. He notes that Justice Gableman’s seat is up in 2018 and thinks the incumbent will be viewed as vulnerable. If so, several candidates might toss their hats into the ring.