From left: Ed Fallone, Vince Megna, Pat Roggensack
Two candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court -- incumbent Justice Pat Roggensack and Marquette University law professor Ed Fallone -- took repeated swipes at each other at a forum today in Milwaukee.
The third candidate -- lemon law attorney Vince Megna -- stressed he would be a much-needed advocate for the average working person and someone who would break up a perceived 4-3 conservative majority on the court.
The forum, sponsored by the MIlwaukee Bar Association and moderated by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John DiMotto, is the only one preceding the Feb. 19 primary, which will narrow the field to two. More forums are planned between the primary and the general election on April 2, DiMotto said.
Fallone accused Roggensack of contributing to a "completely dysfunctional" court that is dominated by "instability" and "personal sniping" and that has lost the public's confidence, he says, because of its inability to get along. He cited an altercation between Justice David Prosser and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in June 2011, during which Prosser allegedly grabbed Bradley's neck. Fallone assailed Roggensack for recusing herself from the resulting disciplinary proceeding involving Prosser.
Roggensack said she was required to recuse herself, citing a state statute that says a material witness must recuse his or herself from a civil or criminal case. She said the incident involving Prosser "breaks my heart" and promised she and her colleagues "are continuing to work on it."
"The court has the inherent authority to take up the matter and deal with it," Roggensack said. She said she's urging the justices to come to an agreement on the Prosser matter and issue a joint, public statement, but she admitted that so far, her colleagues "are not in consensus" and have yet to buy her suggestion.
Still, Roggensack told forum attendees, "All this stuff about (lack of) collegiality on the court is just a bunch of gossip. It's gossip at its worst. If we were really at each other constantly, screaming and yelling at each other constantly, do you think I would be seeking another 10-year term? "
But Fallone shot back: "Justice Roggensack, I appreciate that you read from the statute, because it clearly states that the material witness provisions apply in civil or criminal matters and disciplinary matters fall within the regulatory jurisdiction of the court. They are not civil; they are not criminal. There was no requirement to recuse in that case. The court should have heard the case; the court should have resolved it."
Fallone said the Prosser matter should be promptly brought before the state Judicial Commission.
"I think her response to this question demonstrates some very clear philosophical differences between myself and Mrs. Roggensack," said Fallone. "She is asserting there is some inherent power of the court to discipline its own members, without any statutory or constitutional authority. She would adopt some vague standard, the contours of which are unknown, in order to resolve this case. I would prefer to stick to procedures we already have. It is the responsibility of the state Supreme Court to police the entire legal profession; it is the only body with the authority to sanction a sitting Supreme Court judge. "
Megna agreed with Fallone that the Prosser case has dragged on too long. "If that happened to us on the street, that matter would come before to a justice system and it's going to be resolved, either through a finding of guilt or innocence or a plea bargain or something, but it's going to be resolved," said Megna. "This case has not been resolved in two years and may never be resolved. Something has to happen. If the Supreme Court cannot police itself, some other entity is going to have to come in and do the policing."
Roggensack stressed her experience as a sitting member of the court and as a former appellate judge.
"I have, by far, the best experience of the three of us, to be a Supreme Court justice," she said. "Probably 80 percent of my job is judging other judges to see if they got it right."
Roggensack insisted she has bipartisan support and said she didn't like labels when DiMotto asked if she considered herself a "judicial activist."
Megna said he openly discloses his views of political issues and calls himself a "nonpartisan Democrat." He said the public constantly asks judges for their personal views and has a right to know them, but at the same time, he said his personal views would not influence his handling of Supreme Court matters.
Megna said Wisconsin's Supreme Court needs new blood and needs to "lighten up," not be "at each other's throats," and work as a team. "We don't have just one king judge or queen judge -- we have seven justices that need to work together," said Megna.
He also said the court has lost its ability to represent average working people and is instead controlled by big-money special interests. He has challenged his opponents to decline out-of-state campaign contributions.
"I am absolutely opposed to big money coming into the state from people with no ties to this state and who only care about their agenda," Megna said.
But Fallone said campaign contributions are a fact of life until the state Legislature changes the law; however, he called for more transparency regarding contributions.
Roggensack said during her last election, she asked supporters not to pay for ads, but found she could not control outside groups. "You can't make folks who make independent expenditures do anything," she said.