Crooks unopposed so far in re-election bid for state’s top court

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks found plenty of critics after a series of decisions this summer that angered conservatives.

What he hasn’t found is an opponent.

Just a week out from the Jan. 3 deadline, no one has filed 2,000 signatures needed to take on Crooks in this spring’s election. Barring a last-minute entry, Crooks will win another 10-year term unopposed.

Court watchers, interest groups and others chalk that up to several factors: the difficulty taking on an incumbent justice, the expense and the small pool of serious candidates who can vie for a seat on the state’s top court.

Almost half a dozen potential opponents have opted against a run since Crooks surprised court watchers with his announcement this summer he would seek a second 10-year term. It could be the third straight time an incumbent justice has won re-election without facing an opponent.

“They’re smart enough not to get into something that they had little chance if any of winning,” said William Bablitch, Crooks’ campaign co-chairman and a former justice himself.

Crooks, who declined an interview request, has long been considered a member of the court’s conservative wing. But he angered many on the right when he joined a series of decisions that weakened limits on liability judgments in Wisconsin.

They included:

_Eliminating a cap on medical malpractice awards for things like pain and suffering.

_Clearing the way for a Milwaukee teen to sue several manufacturers of a lead paint pigment even though he cannot prove if any of them made the product he claims sickened him.

_Lowering the threshold plaintiffs must meet to receive punitive damages, awards meant to punish a defendant’s actions.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce declared a “liability crisis” in Wisconsin following the decisions, placing much of the blame on Crooks. Then the conservative group FreedomWorks announced plans for a $2 million campaign to overturn the decisions through new laws and hinted at ads to target Crooks during his re-election campaign.

WMC spokesman Jim Pugh said business groups are still in a panic over the court’s decisions but have no alternative to Crooks. FreedomWorks state director Cameron Sholty said the group has turned its focus to getting legislation passed to overturn those decisions as well as races for the Legislature and governor’s office next year.

He said it’s a better use of the group’s resources, an acknowledgment of how difficult it is to unseat a sitting Supreme Court justice.

The last to lose an re-election bid was Chief Justice George Currie in 1967. He was two years away from a mandatory retirement age in place at the time and was part of a ruling that allowed Major League Baseball’s Braves to leave Milwaukee. Many believe both were factors in his loss.

Pugh said there is also a small pool of candidates who can put up a serious challenge for a spot on the Supreme Court. He said it typically involves senior lawyers who are hesitant to give up their big salaries and young judges who fear losing to an incumbent justice could derail their political careers.

A series of candidates were preparing for a possible run this year until the 67-year-old Crooks announced he would seek another term.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John Siefert bowed out this month, citing his daughter’s health. Madison attorney Linda Clifford opted against a run this fall despite having more than $200,000 in her campaign fund – much of it her own money – saying she would wait until 2007 instead. Justice Jon Wilcox would be up for re-election then, but many speculate he will not seek another term – the same thing many thought about Crooks.

Attorney Mark Frankel, a former Dane County judge, also decided against taking on Crooks, saying such a daunting task didn’t seem worthwhile.

Some conservatives had been lining up behind Milwaukee County Judge Michael B. Brennan earlier this year. He dropped out as soon as Crooks announced he was in.

“I’m not going to run against a sitting justice,” Brennan said then.

Bablitch said cost is another factor.

The last open seat on the bench was 2003, when Patience Roggensack won election to replace Bablitch on the court. She spent almost $418,000 to beat Barron County Circuit Judge Ed Brunner – more than $300,000 of it from her own pocket.

There is also limited public financing available to candidates for the court. Brunner received a grant of $54,800 in his bid. This year, there only would be $39,189 in public financing available.

Despite the anger in some circles over Crooks’ decisions, it hasn’t stopped him from lining up a long list of supporters that covers both sides of the political spectrum. Honorary co-chair include three former governors – Democrat Pat Lucey and Republicans Scott McCallum and Tommy Thompson.

His list of backers includes state Rep. Mark Gundrum, one of the most conservative members of the Assembly. Gundrum, R-New Berlin, said he is still baffled by several of Crooks’ decisions over the past year. But there aren’t enough concerns about Crooks from either side of the political spectrum to challenge him for another term.

“I am hopeful that he will come back around and remember what the term judicial restraint means as he did for the prior nine years of his term,” Gundrum said.