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Screnock Discusses Supreme Court Run

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Premiere Date: 
December 22, 2017

Screnock Discusses Supreme Court Run

In continuing coverage of the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court, Sauk County Circuit Court Judge Michael Screnock sits down to present his judicial philosophy. Screnock says he will be able to be 'apolitical,' even with his background defending Act 10 as a private-practice attorney. He also supports Wisconsin's judicial recusal rules, saying they are "fundamental to our system of government."

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

We shift gears now into electoral politics and an inside look at the 2018 race for State Supreme Court. Last week we introduced you to Supreme Court candidate Tim Burns. On our January 5 program, we will talk with candidate Rebecca Dallet. Tonight we speak with Supreme Court candidate and Sauk County Circuit Court Judge, Michael Screnock. Before entering the field of law, Judge Screnock spent over a decade in local government, including a stint as the Washburn City Administrator. As a private practice attorney, he defended legal challenges to Act 10. In 2015, Governor Scott Walker appointed him to the Sauk County Circuit Court. He retained his seat in the 2016 election. Judge Screnock joins us now. Thanks very much for being here.

Michael Screnock:

Thank you for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

We first wanted to ask why you believe you would be best among the candidates running to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court?

Michael Screnock:

Thank you. I think the most important thing, because I think it's the most important thing for the Supreme Court, is that I believe strongly in the rule of law and I believe that the role of the court is to interpret and to apply the law, but not to rewrite the law or to try to legislate from the bench. I think that's fundamental to our system of government and I think it's critical that the justices on our Supreme Court understand the limited role that they've been given by the people through our Constitution. And as I watched Mr. Burns and Judge Dallet announce their candidacies, I wasn't satisfied that either one of them really share that view of the role of the court and I do think it's critically important that whoever does succeed Justice Gableman has that view. So I think my judicial philosophy first and foremost is a reason that the electors should be interesting in having me on the Supreme Court. Now, I have a very different experience than either of my two opponents and you highlighted some of it in the opening. What I bring to the position is a broad experience on the types of issues that the Supreme Court regularly hears. So as a local government official, I was involved heavily in matters of zoning and planning, property tax assessment, budgeting. As an attorney in private practice, I represented private interests in those same areas. And so I understand those matters of law that people interact with on a day-to-day basis and that frequently do end up in our Supreme Court.

Frederica Freyberg:

Candidate Tim Burns says that the notion that judges are apolitical is a "fairytale." What do you think?

Michael Screnock:

I think that he believes that passionately. I think he really does believe that. I think he's wrong. And I can say that because I deal with it every day. Every day when I sit on the bench, I approach cases based on the facts as they come to me and the law as I find it. And it's not unusual for me to have a case in front of me that I have a personal feeling about or an emotional attachment about one way or the other and I must set aside those feelings, personal opinions and emotions and not let them get in the way of my role as a judge in applying the law to the facts as they come to me.

Frederica Freyberg:

Yet you defended the state in Act 10 as a private lawyer and you also helped Republican lawmakers draw the voting maps. Now, that suggests kind of an inclination, a conservative GOP inclination. What about that?

Michael Screnock:

Well, I didn't draw the maps. And I know that's something that people think from one article that Patrick Marley wrote. But the work that I did on Act 10 I’m proud of because of the issues that were in front of the court. There are many cases -- there were six different cases that were filed over Act 10, challenging it. And the first one dealt with the way that it was adopted. And then a number of cases dealt with the merits. Those issues raised fundamental questions of the separation of powers and the role of the court in comparison to the other two branches of government. And that's how those cases were decided. They weren't decided because a Republican legislature and governor passed Act 10. And we see that with Justice Crooks in his concurrence in Act 10. He did not think it was a good law. He did not think it was a good idea. He thought it was very bad public policy. But he said as a matter of law, not only was the majority right, he said it's not even a close call. So the fact that I worked on that doesn't indicate that I have any sort of Republican leanings or that I would be inclined to rule on cases based on the political preferences of the parties in front of me. It demonstrates that I have the ability to really research the law on complex issues of constitutional questions and identify what the law says about those questions. And that's the role of the justice on our Supreme Court.

Frederica Freyberg:

What is your position on lack of recusal rules when it comes to campaign contributors who come before the high court?

Michael Screnock:

Well, the first thing, I think it's unfortunate the way this issue has been framed so far in this campaign. We have a recusal rule. And the people of Wisconsin should know that and should not be misled into thinking we don't have a recusal rule. We have a recusal rule that's been on the books for a long time. It was a question that Justice Abrahamson addressed in 2009 during her reelection bid at that time. And what she said then is true now. And what she said then was that we -- judges look at the question of recusal on a case-by-case basis based on all of the circumstances in the case. And there could be any number of reasons why a judge or a justice would feel the need to recuse themselves that could have nothing to do with contributions or support during a campaign. And I do that, you know, every case that comes in front of me. I have to think is there a reason why I need to get out of this case? Now, we have an elected judiciary. That's the system that the people of Wisconsin have chosen. And at the very core of that system is the belief and the expectation that judges individually will not sit on cases when they can't be fair and impartial. And the recusal rule that we have in place right now allows and requires judges to make that analysis. And I have done it on the circuit court. I would continue to do it on the Supreme Court because that's fundamental to our system of government.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. We need to leave it there. Michael Screnock, thank you very much.

Michael Screnock:

Thank you.

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