MILWAUKEE -- Two Supreme Court candidates called Wednesday for changes in how the Wisconsin Supreme Court conducts its business, while Justice Rebecca Bradley defended the rules set by the body's conservative majority.
Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald also depicted themselves as more independent than Bradley, an appointee of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Bradley insisted she doesn't let her personal or political views influence her judicial decisions.
In their first forum, hosted by the Milwaukee Bar Association, the three candidates answered questions audience members submitted to moderator Steve Walters, senior producer for WisconsinEye. Many of those questions focused on court rules.
Donald supported creating an independent panel, perhaps of appeals court judges, to resolve ethics cases involving Supreme Court justices. Kloppenburg said Bradley had voted with fellow conservatives to defeat that change. Bradley said the request didn't follow proper procedure and that she would be open to considering changes within established rules.
The high court now polices itself. In 2010, justices deadlocked 3-3 on whether to try Justice Michael Gableman on charges of lying in a 2008 campaign ad. Another ethics case stalled when five of the seven justices recused themselves from considering whether Justice David Prosser physically attacked Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in 2011.
Kloppenburg and Donald said the court should be more transparent by meeting publicly on administrative matters and outlawing email votes, such as the procedure used to elect Pat Roggensack as chief justice. Rebecca Bradley said it was appropriate to discuss some administrative issues privately.
Donald also said justices should state a reason for recusing themselves from a case, as circuit court judges do. Bradley said justices sometimes must keep their reasons secret to avoid violating the confidentiality of a former law client. Kloppenburg agreed, but called for less-subjective recusal standards and for reconsidering a rule that says justices don't have to recuse themselves from cases involving campaign donors.
Kloppenburg and Donald repeatedly attacked the influence of politics and special interests on the court, on which conservatives hold a 5-2 edge.
"Our Supreme Court used to have a national reputation," Donald said. "It now also has a national reputation, but not the one it used to have."
He and Kloppenburg noted Bradley has accepted Republican Party assistance in the nonpartisan race and that Walker appointed her to the circuit and appeals courts before the Supreme Court.
"She's bringing her partisanship onto the court," Kloppenburg charged.
Bradley said she didn't solicit GOP aid and would accept help from anyone who offered it.
She also said the court needs justices like her, who "say what the law is, not what they wish it would be."
But Kloppenburg and Donald didn't limit their fire to Bradley. Kloppenburg noted she was the only candidate not originally appointed by a governor. Donald conceded he was appointed by GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson but also suggested the forum's seating -- with Bradley on his right and Kloppenburg on his left -- symbolized his centrism and their partisanship.
Bradley also took issue with the perception of a tensely divided court, saying she worked collegially with all the other justices. One sign this race is so far more civil than some past court campaigns: All three candidates hugged each other at the end of the forum.