Candidates not pulling any punches in Supreme Court debate

The Wisconsin State Supreme Court debate took place Monday night at the Law School. Photo by Cy Kondrick /

With just two weeks left until the April 5 Wisconsin Supreme Court election between current Justice David Prosser and Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, harsh accusations and fighting words have replaced respectful campaigning and judicial jargon.

The candidates debated everything from impartiality in the courtroom to the influence of special interest groups on their campaigns in Monday’s latest “On the Issues” installment hosted by Mike Gousha, distinguished fellow in Law and Public Policy.

Prosser, who has served more than 12 years on the state’s Supreme Court, focused on his career as a Justice and the ways in which his experience trumps his opponent’s. He said he has made more than 900 published decisions in his time.

He said Kloppenburg is “incredibly envious of his record.”

Meanwhile, Kloppenburg has been a prosecutor at the Wisconsin Department of Justice for more than 20 years, and believes the Supreme Court needs “new blood.” She said, if elected, she will examine cases with an open mind and in a nonpartisan way.

“The most important thing is to focus on the positive and do the work that as a Justice, I would be elected to do,” Kloppenburg said. “The dynamic of the court needs to change, and I would help it move forward as a collective unity.”

Although the two candidates have different approaches to campaigning, both agreed impartiality is key to the court’s success.

Prosser, a Republican, called Kloppenburg’s campaign “disturbing” and accused her of using her Facebook page as an appeal to liberal voters. He said the page is filled with comments regarding Gov. Scott Walker’s recently passed budget repair bill, which stripped most collective bargaining rights from public workers.

“The people commenting on her page are against the governor and the bill,” he said. “If she doesn’t take these posts down, not only is she held responsible for them, but she wouldn’t even be able to reside over pertinent cases if elected.”

In response, Kloppenburg said the comments simply tell the truth, and that people are disturbed by the partisan approach to cases reaching the court.

Gousha questioned the truth in Kloppenburg’s claim of being completely impartial.

“Protesters in Madison over the past number of weeks have held signs in support of you (Kloppenburg),” Gousha said. “Obviously this could make you feel as if you have to support them, since they once supported you.”

Kloppenburg denied this idea, saying individuals across the state have overwhelmingly said they do not want to know her political stance before a decision, but merely want her to be impartial.

She also said her campaign appeals to all voters, but Prosser’s demonstrates how he will vote, and thus only appeals to a narrow segment of voters.

Regarding voter support, both candidates were questioned on special interest groups, and whether or not judges should be elected or appointed.

Kloppenburg said both means of selecting judges have problems, but it is important for a Justice to make decisions without fear of recall due to outside interests.

“The election method is working thus far, but the next step is for Congress to lead the way,” she said. “They need to figure out how to decrease the campaign spending on special interests.”

Prosser disagreed that Congress should get involved, saying they have “no business tampering with judicial elections in Wisconsin.”

He also said the fundamental reason elections are held is for accountability.

“I am willing to have people judge me on my actions, but some people don’t want to be held accountable,” Prosser said. “The aim of a judicial election is to force an individual to be held accountable, which is why they’re good.”

In a closing statement, Kloppenburg repeated her goal of acting impartially.

“I will be there to serve the interest of the Wisconsin people and the law,” she said. “I will be the friend of justice that everyone wants to reside over a case.”

Although accountability and credibility were important to Prosser, he questioned Kloppenburg’s focus. He said one cannot be an advocate while remaining impartial, and thus she must not understand the meaning of the word.

“I don’t want to simply repeat a phrase or word,” he said. “I want to take actual action.”