The empty chair with a name placard sent a not-so-subtle message: Justice Patience Roggensack was MIA.
The Sun Prairie Action Resource Coalition, a grassroots progressive group, had invited all the candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court to a forum last week at the Sun Prairie public library. But only incumbent Roggensack's challengers, Ed Fallone and Vince Megna, showed up.
Roggensack's campaign declined the invitation because of scheduling conflicts, said spokesman Brandon Scholz. Scholz did allow that he thought the questions posed by the group were "pretty pointed."
All three candidates will be on the primary ballot Feb. 19; the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election April 2.
Megna was the first to challenge Roggensack, considered part of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court. At the forum, he gave the impression that even he sees Fallone, a Marquette University Law professor, as the more viable candidate of the two.
"I agree with everything Ed said," Megna said when following Fallone on one question posed by moderator John Nichols of The Capital Times. Also: "I like Ed, I really do. He's a brilliant guy."
But Megna is also clearly having fun doing his shtick, along the lines of the satiric videos he made opposing Gov. Scott Walker. Refreshingly honest, Megna has insisted on exposing the partisan divide on the officially nonpartisan bench.
"Although nonpartisan, I am a nonpartisan Democrat," he joked.
Megna received his law degree in 1973 but said he did everything he could do to avoid the practice of law - including playing in a band and working in a music store - until he handled a lemon law case in 1990 against an automaker. Then, he said, he knew that "this is what I was meant to do."
Since then, he told the capacity crowd of 140, he's "had the pleasure of suing General Motors 500 times without losing a case against them."
"I've represented average people in this state for 23 years," he added. "I never represented corporations, never represented the state."
He said he would bring that "voice of the people" to the Supreme Court.
Fallone said he is running for the Supreme Court because a key question needs to be answered in the spring election.
"Is our Wisconsin court system going to be open to everyone, including working families? Or is it only open and beholden to the special interests?"
He said that in recent years the Wisconsin Supreme Court - which has made headlines for infighting, an altercation between justices, and disciplinary investigations against justices - has not provided an independent check on the political power being exercised by the governor and Legislature.
"We know the forces at play in the political branches, and when we absolutely need our justices to be independent, to represent the people and not the special interests, that's when our court is completely dysfunctional."
Fallone said the court has decided fewer cases than it used to because of this dysfunction. He also said the dysfunction interfered with the disciplinary proceedings against Justice David Prosser, who was involved in a physical conflict with Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.
"The case falls apart because they can't even work together to hear it," he said. "And there is no accountability."
Scholz disputes that productivity has declined on the court, saying it "has been better than it has been for a number of years." And he says Fallone's claims of dysfunction are exaggerated. Roggensack "works with the other justices every day. They don't spend their days fighting and arguing," he says.
"Yes, they had incidents, and Pat said it breaks her heart," Scholz adds.
In a recent column in The Capital Times, Roggensack argued that she was the best candidate based on her more than nine years of experience on the Supreme Court and her seven years as a Court of Appeals judge.
She touts her "fair and evenhanded approach" and her broad experience. And she says she's the best candidate because she knows the job: "I know how judicial decision-making works."