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In Wisconsin, the contentious fight over bargaining rights for public employees appears to be headed to the state Supreme Court.

A state appeals court today declined to rule on a case alleging that legislators broke the state's open meetings law before passing a controversial bargaining bill.

The challenge puts a sharper focus on what had until recently been a sleepy campaign for a seat on the state Supreme Court.

As Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports, some in Wisconsin now see that campaign as a referendum on Republican Governor Scott Walker.

SHAWN JOHNSON: Here are two names that until a couple of months ago hardly anyone in Wisconsin knew: David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg. Prosser had some recognition from his years in the state Legislature and as a justice on the Supreme Court. But Kloppenburg's two decades as a state prosecutor still left her as a political unknown.

That all changed overnight. When protests swept the Wisconsin Capitol in February, Kloppenburg's campaign for Supreme Court justice got a jolt.

People visiting this Westside Madison coffee shop are trying to keep the momentum going as they pick of Kloppenburg yard signs from activist Bill Delaney.

Mr. BILL DELANEY (Activist): What do you think is really realistic today? Do you want to take 10, do you want to take 20? Twenty?

JOHNSON: Delaney says he was already interested in this race, but calls the Capitol protests life-changing. Certainly for him they were. He quit his state job soon after forming a political action committee to help Kloppenburg's candidacy. His group is one of several Wisconsin PACs springing up in just the last month.

Mr. DELANEY: It's like the sign with all the little fish grouped together, you know, and going after one big fish, you know. So maybe that's what we'll be. We'll be all these little PACs, and hopefully we'll penetrate counties all over the state and get the word out.

JOHNSON: This much attention is highly unusual for what's an officially nonpartisan Supreme Court race. Conservatives now hold a majority on the court. If Kloppenburg beats incumbent Prosser, that could shift the balance there.

JoAnne Kloppenburg is reacting cautiously to the extra attention, never endorsing the protesters or the union cause. But in an interview this week at a Madison forum for the candidates, she said the events of the past month certainly have people paying attention to the race.

Ms. JOANNE KLOPPENBURG (Assistant Attorney General, Wisconsin): They may have learned more about the court and about my candidacy because of it, but they are supporting me because I am independent and impartial.

JOHNSON: Kloppenburg argues that's not the case with her opponent, David Prosser, who as a Republican state lawmaker ascended to the role of Assembly speaker. Kloppenburg's supporters put it more bluntly: They label Prosser a rubber stamp for Governor Scott Walker's plans.

Speaking after the same forum, Prosser hit back, saying unions only want Kloppenburg on the court because they know how she'll vote.

Justice DAVID PROSSER (Wisconsin State Supreme Court): Some people want to turn this into a referendum on the governor at a time when he's not that popular. But what they're really trying to do is to put a person on the court who's going to decide cases opposed to the governor.

JOHNSON: David Prosser says his Republican background is not a secret, and says he's worked hard on the court to withdraw from the political process. Prosser says his rulings on the bench speak for themselves.

Up until about six weeks ago, University of Wisconsin political scientist Howard Schweber says Prosser was expected to coast to victory.

Mr. HOWARD SCHWEBER (Political Scientist, University of Wisconsin): At this point, all of that has changed.

JOHNSON: Schweber says the protests and the anger at Governor Walker have fired up Kloppenburg's base. But he expects even more intensity with the governor's bargaining bill now in front of the Supreme Court, where Prosser could potentially rule on it before the election.

Mr. SCHWEBER: Both sides are putting effort into mobilizing their voters, into making this a high-intensity election in which the real issue is not Prosser himself and certainly not Kloppenburg, but rather Governor Walker and everything that's been going on.

JOHNSON: There's another wrinkle in this court race, though. This is the first year under a new public financing law for Wisconsin Supreme Court campaigns. Each candidate got $300,000 for this election, and that makes it hard to afford TV ads. But that just means that union and corporate-funded interest groups can now pick up the slack on the airwaves.

In normal times, incumbents have a strong advantage in Supreme Court races. But as the last couple of months in Wisconsin show, these are anything but normal times.

For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.

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