Judicial Elections, in Wisconsin and Beyond

Rachel Lauter 

Wisconsin held an election yesterday for a state supreme court judgeship, which is has been viewed by pretty much everyone as a proxy battle between Republican Governor Scott Walker and the pro-labor community. As of the writing of this post, Democrat JoAnne Kloppenburg, the candidate of the pro-labor community, had a small lead– about 200 votes– over the sitting judge, David Prosser.

There will likely be a recount and a long legal battle going forward, and the results of the election will obviously have a long-lasting impact on the Wisconsin judiciary. But one additional lasting impact this election might have is to mobilize advocacy organizations around judicial elections throughout the country. The Wisconsin election is reminiscent of what happened to Iowa’s supreme court this past fall around the issue of same-sex marriage.

Progressive advocacy organization should seize on the salience of these situations to mobilize and organize.  They should start developing long-term strategies to identify potential candidates and build electoral bases for local judicial races throughout the country. Local judges can have a huge impact on individuals, communities, and states, and subsequently politics more broadly. And while there is legitimate concern about the role of money in these elections (and the potential for corruption, as in the Caperton case), an organizing strategy could be one potential avenue for creating a lasting progressive judiciary. It would also be a way for progressives to train judges for the federal judiciary.

This is basically taking a page out of the playbook  of conservatives who for years have been running individuals for local elected offices and as a result have transformed the Republican electoral base. Increasingly, it appears that progressives have been behind the ball in thinking about how local and state officeholders can influence national politics and policies. And while there are organizations that have responded to that problem, like the Progressive States Network, the races in Iowa and Wisconsin show that much more work could be done, particularly through creative avenues like judicial elections.

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