The most important vote that Wisconsinites will cast on April 2 is for the position on the state Supreme Court that has been held since 1976 by former Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. As the first woman to serve on the high court, Abrahamson has long been recognized nationally as a pioneer in the law. But her greatest contribution has been as the court’s steadiest defender of the Wisconsin tradition of ethical adherence to the rule of law.
Abrahamson chose to stand in the breech as out-of-state special interests began to warp judicial elections and then, during the tenure of former Gov. Scott Walker, exploited the appointment power to turn a historically nonpartisan court toward rank partisanship. The attacks by the partisans on Abrahamson were shocking; they even conspired to change the rules for selecting the chief justice in order to marginalize her. But Abrahamson was never marginalized. She finishes her term as an exemplar of judicial excellence — an ethical, intellectual and courageous jurist who merges a deep understanding of the law with an equally deep understanding of the values that have historically defined Wisconsin’s courts.
Shirley Abrahamson cannot be replaced.
But voters can choose a justice who will serve in her tradition. Of the two contenders in the April 2 election, only one candidate is prepared to do that: Appeals Court Judge Lisa Neubauer.
A veteran jurist who currently serves as the chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, she is uniquely qualified. Indeed, because of her extensive Appeals Court experience, Neubauer can join the court as a fully prepared and engaged member.
That’s important because the court is in transition. The chaos of the Walker years seems to be dying down, as the voters have taken charge and begun electing justices who treat the law more seriously than the dictates of the former governor or the corporate special interests that are aligned with him.
The election last year of Justice Rebecca Dallet was a breakthrough win for those who seek to restore the court’s integrity and reputation. Electing Neubauer would continue the process of restoring a sense of balance and responsibility to the high court. As she said, “I’m running because I care about making sure our court is fair, impartial, independent, and upholds the rule of law. Now, more than ever, we need our courts to protect the rights of all Wisconsinites and the fundamental principles of our democracy.”
This vision has secured a striking level of support for Neubauer, who runs with the endorsements of more than 300 judges, district attorneys and sheriffs. Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney summed up the enthusiasm for her candidacy when he said, “Wisconsin needs a justice who will stand up for the rights of our citizens and the rule of law. Judge Neubauer will be that kind of justice.”
Unfortunately, Neubauer does not face a credible challenger. We say “unfortunately” because The Capital Times recognizes the value of an elected judiciary. We do not believe that justices should serve as high priests who are chosen in the star chambers of the political elite. As such, we look forward to spirited contests between capable contenders for judicial posts.
During the course of this year’s campaign, Neubauer’s rival, Brian Hagedorn, has disqualified himself as a contender for a place on the high court. Hagedorn spent five years managing Walker’s legal agenda — before receiving a courtesy appointment from his mentor to an Appeals Court sinecure. During his time as Walker’s chief legal counsel, Hagedorn admits he was “serving as the top ethics officer for the administration, advising on legal policy issues, overseeing judicial and district attorney appointments, and providing legal analysis on proposed legislation.”
Walker was tossed out of office last fall by the voters of Wisconsin. But much of what he did during eight years of reckless governance continues to be the subject of litigation and legal wrangling. To serve as an ethical and intellectually honest member of the high court, Hagedorn would have to recuse himself on a regular basis. Yet he refuses to say whether he would stand down from cases involving challenges to Walker’s policies and programs. He has even refused to guarantee that he would recuse himself from cases involving Act 10, the anti-labor legislation that was a centerpiece of the former governor’s ongoing legislative assault on public employees, public schools and public services. That’s astounding, as Hagedorn helped to draft Act 10.
Hagedorn is tone deaf when it comes to judicial ethics. He gets angry with Wisconsinites who worry about his long history of attacking LGBTQ rights and groups such as Planned Parenthood. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Hagedorn has said “calls for promises to recuse himself on cases involving Planned Parenthood and same-sex relationships are attacks on his evangelical Christian views.”
Hagedorn is no fool. He understands that Wisconsinites who have raised concerns about his extreme statements — and about his decision to take more than $3,000 in payments (in 2015, 2016 and 2017) from a right-wing legal advocacy group that has supported criminalizing sodomy and sterilizing transgender people — are not attacking his religion. They are worried about his refusal to recuse from cases involving his former boss, organizations that have given him money, and other ideological initiatives with which he has engaged.
There are no such worries with regard to Judge Lisa Neubauer. She is an able and experienced jurist who will make an outstanding addition to the Supreme Court.
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