Wisconsin’s Court of Appeals elections continue trend of increasing partisanship

By: - April 1, 2022 6:45 am
Gavel on top of a book placed on piles of US dollar bills

(Sasun Bughdaryan | Unsplash)

The race for a seat on Wisconsin’s District II Court of Appeals has descended into partisan sniping in campaign ads, drawn the attention of out-of-state political action committees (PACs), and one candidate has received donations from some of the state’s most prominent conservative donors. 

Elections to Wisconsin’s courts of appeal, historically sleepy and under-the-radar affairs, have been increasingly politicized in recent years, and the District II race between incumbent Lori Kornblum and Waukesha County Circuit Judge Maria Lazar has continued that trend. 

District II is one of the state’s four appellate districts, covering 12 mostly conservative counties in Southeastern Wisconsin. Kornblum was appointed to the seat in November following the resignation of Paul Reilly, who was elected in 2010. 

While the state’s appellate court races haven’t reached the seven-figure heights of its Supreme Court elections, the District II race has been expensive, campaign finance reports show. The cost of campaigning for a seat on one of the state’s appellate courts has hugely increased in recent years. A Wisconsin Examiner analysis last year found that the cost of an appeals court election had increased 700% over six years. 

Lazar has raised more than $130,000 in this race, receiving donations from some of the state’s most prolific conservative donors, including maximum donations of $5,000 from Beloit-area billionaire Diane Hendricks and Illinois billionaires Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein. Lazar also received nearly $4,000 in donations from the Republican parties of the 1st Congressional District, Manitowoc, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Winnebago counties as well as $2,000 from the PAC supporting former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch’s gubernatorial campaign. 

The circuit court judge also received smaller donations from state Sens. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) and Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), conservative Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack, former Supreme Court Justice Dan Prosser and Michael Grebe, a UW System regent. 

Lazar has so far spent $128,000 of her campaign cash. 

In total, Kornblum has brought in more than $430,000, but $275,000 of that came from a personal loan she made to the campaign. She has still outraised Lazar, bringing in more than $150,000 in donations. 

Kornblum has gotten donations from Lynde Uihlein, a Democratic donor and one of Wisconsin’s most prolific campaign contributors. She’s also received a $1,000 donation from Jeffrey Neubauer, the father of Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine), and a smaller donation from Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Mark Thomsen. 

Kornblum has also received more than $32,000 in cash and in-kind donations from the PACs of multiple labor organizations, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and the Democratic Parties of Ozaukee and Walworth counties. 

So far, Kornblum has spent about $188,000 in the race. 

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

The money that Lazar and Kornblum have spent have gone towards advertising that swipes at the judicial and legal records of each other. 

Ads created by the Lazar campaign for TV and radio call her “a liberal, appointed by Gov. Tony Evers to legislate from the bench,” and point out that Kornblum worked for the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, “including under John Chisholm.” 

The attack on her record as a prosecutor, where she focused on crimes against children, is a reference to Wisconsin Republicans’ efforts to oust Chisholm following the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. Republicans have repeatedly attacked Chishom because of the bail amount his office set for the man who drove through the parade in November. 

An ad created by an outside group supporting Lazar also connects Kornblum to Chisholm as video of the attack plays. Kornblum has asked the Lazar campaign to request that ad be stopped because it could re-traumatize victims. 

An attack ad by the Kornblum campaign alleges that Lazar “let a vicious rapist go free after only a few months in jail.” The ad refers to  a trial that Lazar presided over in which David Scharlat, a former Brookfield police officer and federal agent, was found guilty of sexual assaulting a woman he was in a relationship with. 

Lazar sentenced Sharlat to 11 months in jail and five years probation, rather than grant the sentence of four years in prison and three years of extended supervision that prosecutors had requested. 

The Kornblum ad also repeats a quote from Lazar in the Oconomowoc Enterprise, “(it’s not like he) held a knife to someone’s neck he didn’t know and raped her.”

Lazar has disputed the facts of the ad’s allegations. 

Aside from the campaign cash coming in from Democrats and Republicans, the two candidates have also racked up a number of endorsements from prominent liberals and conservatives in the state. 

Lazar is endorsed by a number of figures who have been key to Republican efforts to cast doubt on the 2020 presidential election and spread conspiracy theories of election fraud. The endorsements include former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who has been leading a partisan review of the election and made a number of false accusations; Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Robert Spindell, who cast an electoral college ballot for Donald Trump even though Joe Biden won the state; and former Trump attorney Jim Troupis, who led the effort to recount votes and Milwaukee and Dane counties as well as being an early figure in the effort to overturn the election results. 

Lazar and Kornblum are on the ballot on April 5.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

MORE FROM AUTHOR