Races for the Wisconsin Supreme Court should be publicly financed. It is absurd that special-interest groups are given an opportunity to buy politicians. But it is unconscionable that they are able to buy justice.
Unfortunately, because of the awful machinations of former Gov. Scott Walker, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, options for official action to address the corruption of the judiciary are remote. Newly elected Gov. Tony Evers favors campaign finance reform. But until he has a legislature he can work with on initiatives that might finally clean up elections in Wisconsin, we will continue to be at the mercy of the corporate political action committees and business-tied interest groups that have for so long been so meddlesome in our court contests.
We have a right to expect that these groups will police themselves by recognizing that there are some lines that must never be crossed. Yes, that sounds idealistic. Wisconsinites are understandably cynical about the prospect that powerful interests would ever place the public good ahead of bottom-line calculations.
But last week the Wisconsin Realtors Association did just that. The group withdrew its endorsement of scandal-plagued state Supreme Court candidate Brian Hagedorn. The Realtors even asked for the return of an $18,000 donation that the organization had made to the Hagedorn campaign.
“As a result of recent disclosures regarding past statements and actions by Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Brian Hagedorn, the Wisconsin REALTORS® Association has withdrawn its endorsement of his candidacy,” read a statement from WRA President and CEO Michael Theo, who explained: “The real estate related issues that served as the basis for our endorsement have been overshadowed by other, non-real estate related issues — issues with which we do not want to be associated and that directly conflict with the principles of our organization and the values of our members.”
The “other, non-real estate related issues” have to do with Hagedorn’s overt, and seemingly unrelenting, bigotry.
Hagedorn, who is opposed by Wisconsin Appeals Court Chief Judge Lisa Neubauer in the April 2 election, has been buffeted in recent weeks by a series of revelations regarding his explicit and oft-stated biases. Most of his bigotry has been directed toward the LBGTQ community.
A longtime associate of Walker who was appointed to an Appeals Court sinecure by his political patron, Hagedorn helped found a school that permits the firing of teachers and the expulsion of students based on their sexuality.
Hagedorn also has a history of posting anti-gay messages on the internet. For instance, he has suggested that efforts to promote respect for members of the LGBTQ community — through gay pride events and projects — somehow creates "a hostile work environment for Christians." If this kind of thinking were to be embraced by the courts, anti-discrimination laws of all kinds could be upended by people who claim that their sensibilities are offended by the mere presence of individuals who they would prefer to oppress.
Hagedorn claims that he is the victim of “shameful attacks” that have targeted him as a person of faith. But that’s just doublespeak from a political careerist. He has not been attacked. He has been exposed. News articles detailing his extremism are not made up. They are not “fake news.” They provide an accurate recounting of his positions and associations.
For instance, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported that “Hagedorn was paid more $3,000 in recent years to give speeches to Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization. The alliance has supported criminalizing sodomy and unsuccessfully argued for European laws requiring transgender people to get sterilized to obtain identity documents listing the names and genders they wanted.”
There are many interpretations of Christian faith and there are many, many Christian communities that welcome lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people as members. There are many examples of Christian love and respect toward the LGBTQ community.
Hagedorn has chosen a different path, one that advocates for bias and discrimination. Nothing about Hagedorn’s public pronouncements inspires confidence in his ability to treat all people who come before the bench fairly.
Hagedorn’s critics worry that his pledge to protect “religious freedom” sounds less like a commitment to maintain the historic “wall of separation” between church and state and more like a proposal to establish the freedom to discriminate.
Perhaps Hagedorn could serve fairly and responsibly. Perhaps he can check his biases at the courthouse door. But the prospect that he could not engage in honest deliberations, that he could not control his oft-stated prejudices, is too unsettling to treat casually.
The revelations regarding Hagedorn have led to a lot of rethinking with regard to his candidacy. The Realtors are to be commended for joining in this rethinking process. The decision to withdraw their endorsement of Hagedorn should cause other groups to rethink as well.
Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has been the scene of too much right-wing judicial activism in recent years. Hagedorn’s extreme background and his unapologetic candidacy suggest he would take things to new extremes.
The Realtors chose to draw the line and say “no” to a candidate who has inspired concern rather than confidence. The group showed integrity and good sense in doing so. We hope, and expect, that the voters will mirror that integrity and good sense by rejecting Hagedorn on April 2.
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