MADISON — An attorney known for outlandish satirical videos and provocative statements, a law professor with an expertise in complicated corporate litigation and an incumbent justice are trying to capture voters’ attention in the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Justice Pat Roggensack, lemon law attorney Vince Megna, and Marquette University law professor Ed Fallone are pursuing the 10-year term on the state’s highest court. One of them will be eliminated in the Feb. 19 primary. The two highest vote-getters advance to the April 2 general election.
The race for the nonpartisan office has been marked by Megna trying to politicize it, both Megna and Fallone arguing the court is dysfunctional and needs to change, and Roggensack saying she’s far more qualified than her challengers.
Recent races for the state’s highest court have been expensive, ugly affairs with outside money dominating the airwaves. Spending in the past four Supreme Court races have averaged about $5 million each, with an average of about $3 million in each coming from outside groups.
This year’s race hasn’t seen outside money yet, and the candidates themselves have raised and spent little so far. But that hasn’t stopped Megna from generating buzz.
He declared himself to be a Democrat, even though the race is officially nonpartisan and candidates aren’t identified by party on the ballot. Megna calls that a charade. He also took stands on some issues that could come before the court, including his opposition to photo ID for voters and his support for gay rights.
Megna insists his views wouldn’t affect his decisions on court cases.
“I would absolutely assess the case based on the argument,” Megna said. “There’s no doubt in my mind there. I don’t like guns. I wish guns were banned in the world. I wish there was no gun. But I understand if a case comes to me on guns, there’s a guaranteed right under the Second Amendment to have guns. I’m not going to change that, I don’t have the power to change it.“
Both Roggensack and Fallone reject Megna’s calls to politicize the race.
“I think that already the general public has come to view our state Supreme Court as deciding cases based on political ideology,” Fallone said. “I think that’s unfortunate. I think that diminishes faith in the judiciary.“
Roggensack said taking stands on issues that could come before the court would give the appearance that candidates are prejudging them.
Megna has also refused to back away from several satirical videos he posted online before he got in the race. The videos, which mostly make fun of Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans, include foul language, Megna walking around the Capitol grounds in clown shoes, and profane gestures directed at lawmakers during a public hearing.
“I think people can tell they’re satirical and I think some people might be offended by them,” Megna said. “I’m not going to get a huge Republican crossover vote, anyway.“
Megna also wrote a 2006 book, “Lap Dancers Don’t Take Checks,” that features him on the cover standing behind a topless woman lying face down on a table next to the scales of justice weighed down with stacks of cash.
Both Fallone and Megna argue that Roggensack doesn’t deserve another term because of how the court has operated in recent years.
In the most highly publicized incident, Justice David Prosser placed his hands around the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in 2011. Prosser said he was making a defensive move, but charges have been brought against him alleging that he violated the judicial ethics code. Roggensack and two other justices have recused themselves from his case. Roggensack often sides with Prosser and two other conservative justices on cases, making up a conservative majority on the seven-member court.
In another sign of discord, Prosser called Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a derogatory name in 2010 in front of other justices.
Megna and Fallone say Roggensack should be replaced for the court to function better.
“They have a duty to us, to the people, to become a better court, to become friendly, to be cordial,” Megna said.
Fallone said he is running because the court is in crisis and he owes it to the state and the legal profession to improve it.
“The mere fact of changing the personalities of the court would cause the remaining justices to deal with one another,” Fallone said.
Roggensack said the election is about her, not the Supreme Court as a whole. Even so, she said the court can do a better job reassuring the public that justices will not allow any differences in opinion to rise to the level of the Prosser-Bradley altercation.
“It breaks my heart,” she said of that incident. “It has made the court, as an institution, diminished.“
Still, Roggensack said the justices agree more often than not and get along better than people realize.
“We are not a tremendously fractured court,” she said.
Roggensack’s key argument is that as a judge with 10 years’ experience on the Supreme Court, and seven prior to that on the state appeals court, she is by far the most qualified for the job.
“To do this job and do it thoroughly you should have been a judge before you become a justice,” Roggensack said.
But Megna and Fallone argue they would bring valuable experience to the court.
Megna said he’s the only candidate looking out for the average person and he’s built his career as a lemon law attorney, filing lawsuits against car manufacturers and dealers on behalf of customers who have purchased faulty vehicles. “A justice for all” is his campaign slogan.
“Not being a judge isn’t going to be a big issue in my case,” Megna said. “I think that I’ve given much more for them to attack than not being a judge.“
Fallone said the state’s highest court should have a broad range of experience.
Both Fallone and Megna expect to be outspent by Roggensack. She was the first of the three candidates on the air with a television ad that started Feb. 7.
Megna has been operating on a shoestring budget and even told donors to hold off giving him anything until after the primary, just in case he doesn’t advance. Fallone said he’s meeting his fundraising goals and has netted some big endorsements from teacher and labor unions, traditional backers of Democrats.
Roggensack is endorsed by Milwaukee police and firefighter unions and more than 50 county sheriffs.