Democracy dies with indifference

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An important court election is nearing. Pay attention. And vote.

IT'S NOT LIKE most of us in Wisconsin didn't know this already.

For years the two political parties and their donor patrons have tried to stack the Wisconsin Supreme Court by hand-picking, financing and electing partisans. In recent years Republicans have been ascendant, building a strong conservative majority on the court. The result has been a high court controlled by conservative justices operating mostly in lockstep with Gov. Scott Walker and Republican majorities in the legislature.

Don't get the idea Democrats have been passive. Every election has seen a liberal candidate with strong backing from Democrat donors and the party apparatus. The only difference is Republicans have succeeded and Democrats have failed in the elections. Both had the same goal - an ideologically driven court they could control.

BUT WAIT, you might say. Something's wrong. Aren't these judicial elections legally required to be nonpartisan?

They are. That's true.

So, officially, the candidates do not run as Democrats or Republicans. But even if you call a giraffe a lion all day and all night, it's still a giraffe the next morning.

The political parties and their die-hard bases have tried and, mostly, succeeded in perverting justice at the Wisconsin Supreme Court level. Candidates trying to appeal to the partisans - that's where to find the money - tack hard left or hard right. The goal, essentially, is making it just another political branch of government. That serves the partisans - and nobody else.

WHICH BRINGS US to the race this year to replace conservative Justice Michael Gableman, who is not seeking re-election. Because the three candidates must be whittled down to two, there will be a primary election on Feb. 20.

As a general rule, we do not make recommendations in primaries. We will not abandon that position for this one.

However, we do believe voters - and, honestly, there are precious few who bother to cast ballots in a judicial primary - ought to have a clear understanding about the people on the ballot. Here are the three candidates, and where to find them along the partisan yardstick.

• Michael Screnock, as a private attorney, was involved with Republican-drawn gerrymandered legislative redistricting maps, which currently are under review by the United States Supreme Court. He was appointed a circuit court judge in Sauk County by Walker in 2015. Screnock is the candidate clearly identified with Republicans.

• Tim Burns is a Madison lawyer who at least gets points for partisan honesty. He openly acknowledges being a liberal with ambitions to turn the court left. Burns is the candidate most identified with progressive Democrats.

• Rebecca Dallet is a circuit court judge in Milwaukee County. She has run the more traditional judicial campaign, which means she tap dances around issues and politically-charged questions because, she says, justices should not pre-determine their positions but instead evenly apply the law to every case in front of them.

PERHAPS THE MOST galling reality is that these crucial elective positions are filled most times by a relative handful of voters. Small voter percentages generally turn out to decide who gets the seat. Even fewer turn out for a primary.

Yet the stakes are high - not just control of the court, but whether the court will be independent or partisan in all but name.

Make no mistake. Democracy can be undermined and thwarted if the people, by their indifference, throw away their rights. Both the far left and the far right represent minority slivers of the total electorate. But both thrive off the complacency of the majority.

We urge readers to think about all that. Then cast a ballot in the Feb. 20 primary.

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