MILWAUKEE -- A 2011 altercation between two state Supreme Court justices drew renewed attention Thursday as a third justice and her two election challengers sparred over whether the current court is too dysfunctional to be effective.
Justice Pat Roggensack, law professor Ed Fallone and consumer lawyer Vince Megna appeared in Milwaukee together at an hourlong candidate forum sponsored by the Milwaukee Bar Association. The slate of three candidates will be whittled down to two in a Feb. 19 primary. The general election is April 2.
Fallone and Megna said Wisconsin used to have a proud tradition of judicial excellence, but the incident last year shows just how far conditions have deteriorated.
"We've all seen the incivility, the personal sniping in the opinions, the inability of the justices to get along," Fallone said. "And this dysfunction has had an effect on the quality of their work."
Roggensack, who is seeking her second term, said any characterization of incivility on the court was "gossip at its worst."
"If we were really after each other constantly, screaming and yelling at each other, do you really think I'd be seeking another 10-year term on this court? Come on," she said. "There are a lot of other things I could do."
Fallone was referring to a 2011 incident in which Justice David Prosser placed his hands around the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. 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 considering the case, leaving its prospects uncertain.
Fallone criticized Roggensack for recusing herself, saying a disciplinary hearing would have been the best way for all parties to discuss what happened and resolve the issue. Roggensack replied that she was bound by statute to withdraw because she was a material witness.
Megna also took aim at the court for failing to handle the matter. But he said his larger concern was what he called the "four-person conservative bloc" on the bench. Roggensack often sides with Prosser and two other conservative justices on cases, making up a conservative majority on the seven-member court.
"I feel it's inappropriate, and I feel it's causing a significant problem in the state," Megna said.
All three candidates played up their campaign themes. Roggensack emphasized her 17 years of experience as a judge, Fallone discussed his legal expertise and Megna talked about being a voice for the people.
Campaign finance reports filed last week showed Roggensack with $55,000 in the bank heading into January compared with about $6,900 for Megna and $5,400 for Fallone.
Roggensack's totals didn't include $20,550 from Fund for Parent Choice, a national group that advocates for private-school vouchers.
Roggensack launched the first TV ad of the campaign season this week, a spot highlighting her judicial experience.
During the forum, the moderator, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John DiMotto, asked the candidates whether they would request that third-party independent groups not run ads in the race.
Roggensack said she wouldn't make such a request because candidates cannot stop groups from airing ads if they want. Fallone didn't answer directly but said he'd like outside groups to be held to higher standards of public disclosure, and Megna said he was disappointed that his two fellow candidates declined to join his pledge to reject outside money.
"If the candidates won't reject that, I'm asking the people of Wisconsin ... to reject that," Megna said.