After a week of news reports questioning Supreme Court candidate Annette Ziegler's judicial ethics, opponent Linda Clifford wasted no time in firing the opening salvo at a debate, charging that Ziegler's record in this regard was "lacking."
After Clifford, a Madison attorney, alleged several times during Friday's debate that Ziegler likely violated the state's code of judicial ethics by hearing, as a judge, cases involving West Bend Savings - where her husband is on the board of directors and the couple have more than $3.1 million in loans from the bank - Ziegler responded.
"My family doesn't have a financial stake in any case I've served," she said. "I don't think it's my job to get out of cases on which I serve." She said she welcomed any investigation of those charges.
Ziegler also tried to turn the tables, asking whether Clifford, if elected, would recuse herself from any cases involving negligence or malpractice because Clifford's husband is a personal injury lawyer.
Clifford called Ziegler's comments a "desperate attempt to confuse the laws of conflict of interest and recusal."
Clifford stayed on the offense during the hour-long debate Friday, which was sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin, WisPolitics.com and others. When Ziegler, a Washington County judge, said she held all the sitting Wisconsin Supreme Court justices with "high regard," Clifford cited a fundraising letter sent out on Ziegler's behalf in January that referred to the court as an "activist arm of liberal special-interest groups."
Ziegler fought back, charging that Clifford had longtime ties to the Democratic Party and hired a private investigator to "dig up dirt" on her.
But for the most part, Ziegler sought to portray herself as the logical choice for the seat by touting her 10 years of judicial experience as a circuit court judge in Washington County while pointing out, repeatedly, that Clifford has never been a judge.
Clifford, who has practiced law for 32 years, countered that practicing attorneys and non-judges have always had a presence on the Supreme Court.
"It's experience the court now lacks but needs," she said.
Ziegler and Clifford are vying to fill the seat being vacated by Justice Jon Wilcox, who is retiring. The election is April 3.
Court observers say the court is basically split now between liberals and conservatives, with Wilcox being among the conservatives.
When asked during the debate whether such designations had any place in the courtroom, both candidates said no.
"Using terms like conservative or liberal are not appropriate," Ziegler said. "I think judicial races should be non-partisan."
Ziegler said she lives a non-partisan life, but noted Clifford's Democratic affiliations.
Clifford, in turn, said Ziegler's campaign staff is comprised of "Republican operatives and Republican-identified individuals."
Clifford said she eschews political designations because they tend to affect a judge's ability to be independent and creates a public perception about how a judge will rule.
Clifford's closing remarks included another attack on Ziegler's ethics and a reiteration of her legal experience. Ziegler offered a more homey touch, harking back to her parents' hardware store and her desire as a young girl to work the cash register.
She said her parents made her earn that role by doing less glamorous work around the store first.
In a not-so-subtle reference to Clifford's lack of judicial experience, Ziegler said: "I think you do need to work your way up."