Middleton attorney Tim Burns hasn't been shy about taking partisan positions in his campaign to win a seat on the state's high court, and indeed he thinks his embrace of progressive values might just be the ticket to winning.
Burns takes on two opponents in the Feb. 20 primary - Milwaukee County circuit court judge Rebecca Dallet and Sauk County circuit court judge Michael Screnock.
Screnock is the only avowed judicial conservative in the race; Dallet and Burns are both appealing to the more liberal side of the electorate, and the primary race is widely seen as an elimination round for one of them.
In his campaign, Burns is taking on more than his opponents. He is taking on political conservatism itself, from Scott Walker's political agenda to anti-union forces to mega-corporations.
"We should not be content to live in a hollowed country in which our small towns, small farms, and small and mid-sized businesses have been strangled by concentrated wealth," he says. " ... I am a strong progressive because I believe in democracy. I believe our country works best when everyone has a voice in governing, not just special interests."
Burns says his background - he says his parents were forced out of high school due to poverty - taught him the importance of hard work, fairness, and equal opportunity.
Accompanying his philosophy, he says, is the right experience, qualifications, and values to be Wisconsin's next Supreme Court justice.
In his law practice, and in keeping with his progressive beliefs, Burns represents clients taking on large insurance companies. He says he has been hired by major clients in three dozen states and 10 foreign countries to handle their most sensitive issues.
According to his website, he has also chaired the American Bar Association's committee on Fair and Impartial Courts and serves on the national board of the American Constitution Society, a progressive judicial group that focuses on constitutional issues.
He has been married to his wife Pam for more than 20 years and has three children.
In answering a questionnaire for the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, Burns expanded on his background and how it has influenced him.
"I'm not a lawyer's kid," Burns wrote. "I am the grandson of Mississippi sharecroppers. My father was forced out of school by poverty in the fifth grade. My mother in the 10th grade, but I grew up in a time when a minimum wage job could still support a family. Public education and public libraries built by the broad middle-class economy of my childhood gave me the opportunity to become a successful attorney."
Burns says he was one of a handful of graduating law students chosen for a prestigious clerkship with a judge on the United States Court of Appeals, and, as such, he is the only candidate with experience working on an appellate court. He says he has both prosecuted and defended criminal cases, but his experience starts there, it doesn't end there, he wrote in the WJI survey.
"I've built a national practice as one of America's leading attorneys in standing up to massive insurance companies," he wrote. "I have been hired by major businesses in three dozen states and 10 foreign countries to handle their most sensitive liability and insurance issues, but I've also represented regular working people in class actions seeking to hold insurance companies accountable for financial fraud. Today, it is my experience that is most needed on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I know how to hold massive corporations in check because I know how they work, inside and out."
Burns is unabashedly progressive in his rhetoric and positions, and often takes to Twitter to express himself.
Sometimes it's a retweet: "@Burns4WI promises in his first television ad of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, airing in Madison and Milwaukee, that if elected he will fight @GovWalker 'extreme agenda,' and take on wealthy corporations, polluters and insurance companies."
Sometimes it's his own language: "#Conservatives like @JudgeScrenock talk about not legislating from the bench, then they Invalidate voting rights act, invalidate violence against women act, invalidate portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, invalidate Medicaid expansion requirements in ACA."
All the time it's a blunt assessment about his mission in getting on the court: "Tuned in this morning to @JayWeber3 interviewing @JudgeScrenock. Jay spends a fair amount of time criticizing me, but only after he expresses fear that with this election, conservatives could lose control of the court by 2020. In case I have not been clear - THAT IS MY GOAL."
The appeal to the progressive Left is even more specific on his website.
"I believe the Citizens United ruling threatens our democracy," he says there. "Courts must closely scrutinize any measure that allows special interests disproportionate power in the political process."
He gives a political nod to pro-abortion politics: "I believe the government has no business stepping into private medical decisions."
He suggests he opposes voter ID laws: "I believe that courts must carefully scrutinize laws that in any way inhibit the right to vote."
He points to the need to uphold a strong Public Trust Doctrine: "I believe that courts must carefully scrutinize government actions that weaken laws put into place to protect our environment or public lands and waters."
He opposes the concentration of wealth in big business: "Our small towns have been decimated because our courts have been complicit in weakening of the laws put in place to make sure that major conglomerates do not receive unfair advantage at the expense of local businesses and that corporate farms do not receive unfair advantage at the expense of family farms."
He supports unions on his website: "Do you want a Supreme Court that protects your right to ask for a pay raise - regardless if you ask by yourself or collectively with your fellow workers?"
At the end of the day, Burns says that judges can strengthen self-governance or weaken it: "In interpreting the law judges inevitably draw on their own judicial philosophy - their views on our economic and political system, the role of judges, and the limits on our ability to govern ourselves."
Burns's endorsement list reads like a Who's Who of the Wisconsin Left.
There's former north-central Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, now retired.
"We need a justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court who stands up for people and has the skill and experience to do so effectively," Obey said. "Tim Burns is a champion of progressive Wisconsin values and will never be just another rubber stamp for Scott Walker."
There's former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, who once ran on a ticket with progressive icon Ed Garvey.
"Tim Burns brings his intellectual muscle and deep experience as an attorney, his clearly articulated progressive values, and his deep respect for the law to this campaign to bring change to our tragically broken Wisconsin Supreme Court," Lawton said. "He has a vision for justice and a powerful drive to serve. What luck for Wisconsin."
There's former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in the 2012 recall against Gov. Scott Walker.
"From free speech to our right to privacy to protecting natural resources, the Wisconsin Supreme Court hears and decides the most important legal issues," Falk said. "Tim Burns has the backbone, the integrity, and the courage a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice must have. He will be a strong addition to our court."
There's former northern Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Steve Kagan.
"Recently, our state's Supreme Court has been protecting high-dollar special interests instead of our traditional Wisconsin values," Kagan said. "I trust Tim to protect our right to vote, our right to ask for a raise collectively and the right for every woman to determine her most intimate health care decisions without government interference."
There's judge Joanne Kloppenburg, who contested a Supreme Court seat herself in the aftermath of Act 10 and narrowly lost as the union- and progressive-backed candidate.
"Tim is an outstanding attorney whose expertise in complex areas of the law has earned him widespread recognition as one of the best lawyers in the nation," Kloppenburg said. "Tim's intellect, his deep understanding of legal issues, and his love of the law make him exceptionally well suited to service on the Wisconsin Supreme Court."
There's Our Revolution, a spin off from the Bernie Sanders' campaign.
"Tim's working-class background makes him a champion for all of Wisconsin's working families," Our Revolution president Nina Turner said. "On the Supreme Court, he'll fight for everyone no matter what their race, religion, education, or creed. He will protect voting rights, workers' rights, the environment, and level the playing field for small businesses."
There's U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan: "Our courts help shape our economy and political system, and Wisconsin needs a Supreme Court justice who will bring change to our state's highest court. As a justice, Tim Burns will be a champion of progressive values. He will fight to ensure our courts work for all Wisconsinites, regardless of race or income level and he will not just be another rubber stamp for Scott Walker's agenda."
And there's Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Shilling: "As a nationally recognized attorney, Tim fights to hold huge insurance companies accountable. He sticks up for their policy holders. But he thinks he can do more, and that's why he's our best hope to bring change to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. At a time when the courts are currently tilted towards corporations, wealthy organizations, and mega donors, it's clear that Tim and his values are needed to stand up for all of us."
Burns's partisan approach to the race has drawn criticism from both Screnock and Dallet that the political language is unethical given the nonpartisan nature of the race.
In a recent radio ad, Dallet featured several circuit court judges and Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm, in which Burns was criticized for a lack of judgment and experience.
The officials cautioned that Burns lacked experience in Wisconsin's courtrooms and cited Burns's partisan rhetoric, calling it "inappropriate for anyone who seeks to serve on Wisconsin's highest court."
Burns called the radio ad and the Dallet campaign's characterization of his language as irresponsible and unethical as an "untruthful hit piece."
Among other things, the Burns campaign said it was untrue that Burns has never served as a public servant, as the ad claimed.
"Tim Burns spent a year serving as a clerk on the United States 8th Circuit Court of Appeals," the campaign stated. "Tim is the only candidate in this race with experience working on an appellate court. This information is not secret, and is easily available on the Perkins Coie website."
Burns campaign manager Amanda Brink also protested the Dallet ad's feature of a quote in which Burns "admitted" he had very little experience with the criminal justice system. The ad failed to point out, Brink said, that the quote came from Law 360, discussing Burns's capital murder trial from almost 20 years ago.
"Judge Dallet knows or should have known these statements are untrue, and featuring these statements in a public ad by her campaign is a clear violation of the code of judicial conduct," the Burns campaign stated in calling for Dallet to pull the campaign ad.
"This tactic is ripped straight from the Scott Walker playbook, and unfortunately this is just business as usual for judge Dallet's campaign, a desperate candidate who will say anything to get elected," Brink said. "But this campaign isn't about who can sling the most mud. It is about which candidate will be a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who will look out for all Wisconsinites, regardless of race or income level. That candidate is Tim Burns."
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.
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