Dallet, Screnock spar in first one-on-one Supreme Court debate

MILWAUKEE — Michael Screnock charged Friday rival Rebecca Dallet is advocating a “liberal activist agenda” in her campaign for state Supreme Court, contrary to the Wisconsin values of honesty, integrity, hard work and following the “golden rule.”

But Dallet, a Milwaukee County judge, fired back Screnock has advocated for gerrymandered political maps and was twice arrested for blocking access to an abortion clinic, denying women their “lawful rights.”

“I’m the only one that really knows what the rule of law means,” Dallet said.

Screnock, a Sauk County judge, acknowledged his arrest in college at an abortion clinic nearly 30 years ago and that he vigorously advocated on behalf of his clients while an attorney.

“But everything changed when I raised my right hand and swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the state of Wisconsin,” Screnock said.

The two met in a one-on-one debate at Marquette University for the first time Friday since advancing out of the Feb. 20 primary. It was moderated by Mike Gousha, the host of WISN-TV’s “UpFront with Mike Gousha,” which is produced in conjunction with WisPolitics.com. The debate featured both candidates sitting across from Gousha, side-by-side at a table.

They exchanged barbs on a series of issues, including Screnock’s endorsement by the National Rifle Association and Dallet hearing cases involving attorneys who have donated to her campaign.

Dallet charged Screnock had vowed to uphold the NRA’s platform to win its endorsement.

Screnock disputed that, saying the only promise he made was to uphold the law and that’s why the groups backs him.

“I am running for the judiciary, and it’s not the court’s role to write new laws or re-write existing law. That is the role of the legislative branch,” Screnock said.

Screnock also knocked Dallet, saying she has campaigned on values that have sent a message to voters on how she’d rule in cases. He charged she has crossed lines on what judicial candidates should say on the campaign trail.

“I don’t take positions on issues,” Dallet countered. “I’ve stated values because people have a right to know what they are and know they’re voting for someone who has Wisconsin values.”

Dallet also linked the NRA endorsement to support Screnock has received from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest biggest group, and the state GOP. She questioned how he could hear cases involving WMC, which frequently appears before the state Supreme Court. She said WMC and other groups have spent millions on Supreme Court races to get justices who will “do their bidding.”

The liberal One Wisconsin Now, which tracks media buys, tallied $584,000 spent by the WMC Issues Mobilization Council on broadcast, cable and satellite TV praising Screnock in the lead up to the February primary and the conservative Wisconsin Alliance for Reform dropping another $75,000 on radio and TV. Campaign finance reports filed with the state Ethics Commission also show the state GOP spending at least $142,000 to back Screnock.

“My opponent is bought and paid for by the big-money special interest that have had far too much influence over our court in recent years,” Dallet said.

Screnock said there is no evidence he’s done anything on the bench other than follow the law.

Speaking with reporters afterward, Screnock said Dallet believes he’s bought and paid for because she intends to be an activist.

“And so she apparently has a difficult time understanding how it is that I could set aside my personal beliefs, my feelings about an issue or a party, and simply apply the law,” he said.

During the debate, he said Dallet has talked about worker rights, and “low and behold” has been endorsed by labor unions.

Screnock said Dallet has also talked about women’s rights and issues such as clean water while on the campaign trail. He asked how Dallet could hear a case before the Supreme Court involving a small farmer or “mom-and-pop dry cleaner.”

He also knocked her over a newspaper report that she received $21,100 from 39 attorneys who have appeared before her, saying it was improper when she has made recusal rules “the calling card of her campaign.”

Dallet defended the donations, saying they are allowed and amounted to “a couple hundred dollars here and there” from attorneys versus potentially million of dollars Screnock is likely to benefit from spent by parties likely to be before the court.

Responding to Screnock knocking her for the attorney donations, Dallet said, “I suppose when you can rely on millions of dollars coming to you from special interests groups you don’t have to go campaign around the state.”

Screnock charged many of the judicial endorsements Dallet often touts likely came before she “switched her message” to a more partisan nature.

He said he spoke earlier in the campaign with a judge backing Dallet who said he felt she was least likely to politicize the race.

“I almost can’t say that with a straight face now after she came out with her first TV ad that leads with President Trump and an attack on our president as if what the president does has something to do with our Wisconsin Supreme Court,” Screnock said.

Dallet stood by the ad, saying “it was about our values being under attack and that there’s nothing politicized about it.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more details from the debate.