MADISON, Wis. — A Madison attorney who has been a longtime Democratic donor announced Monday that he’s running for the state Supreme Court against the conservative justice who wrote the majority opinion upholding the law that stripped Wisconsin public unions of most of their power.
Tim Burns, who has never run for office or worked as a judge, said he will challenge incumbent Justice Michael Gableman in the April 2018 election. His announcement is unusually early — nearly a year before the vote — and comes after Democrats were widely criticized for not fielding a candidate against conservative Justice Annette Ziegler in last month’s election.
Burns, 53, told the Associated Press that he wanted to get an early start to begin raising money in the face of what he expected would be heavy spending by conservative special interests to support Gableman.
Gableman, 50, has not officially announced whether he will seek re-election to a second 10-year term. He was traveling Monday and wasn’t immediately available for comment. Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman called Burns “just another Madison liberal whose extreme views are out of line with Wisconsin values and don’t belong at the Supreme Court.”
Gableman has been at the forefront of some of the court’s most controversial rulings of the past decade. He was lead author of the 2014 ruling upholding Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. He also took the lead on the 2015 ruling ending a John Doe investigation into Walker and conservative groups.
Burns said he was deeply troubled by both decisions and Gableman’s siding with four other conservative justices two weeks ago in rejecting a call for justices to recuse themselves from cases involving big campaign donors.
Burns said he’s worried about the influence of special interests on the court.
“It has to stop,” he said.
Burns has donated about $45,000 to Democratic, or Democratic-aligned, candidates in the state since 2007, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s online database.
Those donations include $2,000 last year to the committees working to elect Democrats to the Legislature, $10,000 to the campaign of 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke and more than $20,000 to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett during his two runs for governor in 2010 and in the 2012 recall targeting Walker.
Burns has also donated to the only two remaining liberal justices on the state Supreme Court — Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley. Justices are officially nonpartisan, but partisan influences have spent heavily on them for more than a decade.
Burns is a partner in the Madison law firm Perkins Coie. Another partner, Josh Kaul, is running as a Democrat for attorney general.
Burns said he decided to run for office because he was distraught about the future of democracy following the election of President Donald Trump in November. Burns said he considered running for attorney general but determined the place where could have the biggest impact is on the state Supreme Court.
Burns, who is married with three children and lives in Middleton, represents businesses and consumers in legal action nationwide against insurance companies.