* Election for judge seen as referendum on union law
* Democratic-backed candidate claims win, recount expected
By Jeff Mayers
MADISON, Wis, April 6 (Reuters) - The Democratic-backed candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court judge claimed victory on Wednesday in an election seen as a referendum on a law curbing union power with implications for cash-strapped U.S. states.
Challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg beat Republican-backed incumbent Judge David Prosser by slightly more than 200 votes out of 1.4 million cast on Tuesday, according to local media.
“We owe Justice Prosser our gratitude for his more than 30 years of public service,” Kloppenburg said. “Wisconsin voters have spoken ... . I will be independent and impartial and I will decide cases based on the facts and the law.”
Prosser, a former Republican leader of the Wisconsin legislature seeking his second full 10-year term, said there was “little doubt” there would be a recount with the vote totals within half a percentage point of each other. The state would pick up the cost of a recount.
Tuesday’s election was the first statewide vote since Republicans passed restrictions on the union rights of public workers and the race became a rallying point for supporters and opponents of the law.
Voters turned out in large numbers in what is usually a quiet election for judge because of the heat generated over the law backed by Republican Governor Scott Walker.
“The 50-50 split proves how evenly divided the state is over the Walker agenda. And the turnout shows how deep the feelings run,” said Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, which monitors campaign ad spending, said $3.5 million had been spent on TV ads in the campaign, making it the most expensive contest for judge in Wisconsin’s history.
The supreme court’s makeup will carry added significance because it may take up how the union bill passed the legislature last month, which was challenged by Democrats.
A lower court judge has temporarily blocked implementation of the law on the grounds the Republican majority in the legislature may have violated the state’s open meetings law in maneuvering to pass the measure. Democratic senators had fled the state to try to deny Republicans a vote.
Republicans have appealed the judge’s ruling, and an appeals court said the case belongs with the state supreme court where Prosser is part of the court’s 4-3 conservative majority. Kloppenburg would give liberals a majority on the court when she takes the post in August.
The bill sharply restricted workers’ collective bargaining rights and increases employee contributions for health care and pensions. Anti-union bills have also passed in Indiana and Ohio where Republican dominate the legislatures.
Union supporters view the measures as disguised efforts to undermine a key Democratic constituency, while Republicans said the laws are needed to control costs as states cope with gaping deficits. The acrimony sparked huge protests and recall efforts against veteran Wisconsin state senators from both parties.
Kloppenburg, a longtime assistant attorney general, and Prosser have said they would not prejudge any decision on the law.
Governor Walker signed a companion measure to the union law — part of the “budget repair bill” he introduced in February — that closes a deficit in the current budget. (Additional reporting by David Bailey; Writing by James B. Kelleher and Andrew Stern; Editing by Xavier Briand)