Wisconsin Chief Appeals Court Judge Lisa Neubauer, who wants a promotion to the state Supreme Court, says her election would help restore confidence in the state’s judiciary.
Despite the backing of liberal groups, which are spending heavily in her favor, Neubauer says her impartial view of the law has earned her endorsements across the political spectrum.
“People don’t want a liberal and they don’t want a conservative,” Neubauer said. “They want a judge. They want to know that this person is going to come to the case with an open mind.”
Neubauer will face the conservative-backed Brian Hagedorn on April 2. The race, which has featured about $1.3 million in outside spending, mostly benefiting Neubauer, will be the determining factor in whether liberals will have a chance next year to take control of the court when the conservative-backed Justice Daniel Kelly is slated to seek re-election.
Neubauer’s roughly three decades of experience in the law include 19 years in private practice, some of it when she was a working mother. She eventually made partner, and has spent about a decade as an Appeals Court judge. Neubauer underscored she has far more experience as a lawyer than Hagedorn.
During her time in private practice, some of the cases she’s most proud of include trying to secure insurance coverage for environmental cleanups.
“I worked in an area where there was great uncertainty in the law and which ultimately the law did change,” Neubauer said. “For me, one of the things that I think is so important about our job as judges is to get the law right but also to provide clarity and certainty in the law.”
As an attorney, Neubauer also took on pro bono cases looking into prison conditions. Outside of the law, Neubauer, who is a breast cancer survivor, said she served on the board of ABCD, an organization that provides mentorship to those recently diagnosed with the disease.
Neubauer says she tackles the law with a commitment to getting it right by doing thorough research. She says her judicial philosophy is to help make the Supreme Court fair, impartial and independent. One of her judicial role models is Judge Barbara Crabb, whom Neubauer worked for as a law clerk at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
“You don’t need to come to the law with an ideology,” Neubauer said. “My judicial philosophy is to figure out what the law is, to do my best to follow the law. It’s fine for people in law school to be talking about philosophies or ideologies, but that’s not me, and it’s not who I’ve been.”
Neubauer said she’s never been a member of the conservative Federalist Society nor its more liberal foil the American Constitution Society.
Neubauer declined to further describe her judicial philosophy other than to say in any case she attempts to determine original intent, researches existing case law and applies applicable federal law.
“I do see my judicial philosophy as a judicial philosophy. In some ways my opponent can’t understand that there could be someone like me and … so many of the judges of the 340 that are supporting me would probably feel the same way,” she said.
Neubauer has been knocked by opponents for having liberal bias: outside spending groups and contributors to her campaign represent a swath of progressive causes.
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, for example, endorsed her and has begun spending $100,000 in ads supporting her.
Neubauer has also benefited from at least $835,000 in spending from the Greater Wisconsin Committee, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The group is mostly funded by labor unions and ideological groups that support Democratic and left-leaning candidates.
And the National Democratic Redistricting Committee said earlier this month it would spend $350,000 to support Neubauer. The group is run by former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to elect Democrats to state and federal offices and to promote redistricting reform.
Neubauer, who spent time after college working for Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, said politics isn’t for her.
“I’ve always felt a real passion for the law, and I’m very lucky to be in a career that is truly where I want to be,” Neubauer said.
She said her journey into the legal profession was partially prompted by her own involvement in a legal case that had serious implications for strip searches conducted by police departments.
After a concert one night in Chicago in 1978, a 21-year-old Neubauer and her friends were walking along a city street where all the cars had tickets. Her friend had picked up a ticket and a police officer took notice and arrested him for disorderly conduct. Although Neubauer wasn’t accused of a crime, she was strip-searched by a female officer when she arrived at the police station where her friend was being held.
Neubauer, who had taken an undergraduate constitutional law class, understood the strip search to be illegal.
Shortly after the incident, Neubauer filed a claim. Neubauer recalls troublesome strip-search policies at that time extended to girls in high school halls without passes.
Her involvement in the case got her featured on the popular Phil Donahue show. The case’s outcome, Neubauer said, led to police departments in several states changing their practices.
“That was really just an extraordinarily powerful experience to show how incredibly important the courts are in protecting our rights,” Neubauer said.
Neubauer has several connections to the Democratic Party. Her husband, Jeff, was the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and has continued to make sizable political donations since Lisa took the bench. Jeff served as President Bill Clinton’s campaign manager for Wisconsin between 1992 and 1996, and the two were invited to the Clinton White House several times for social or political functions.
Her daughter, Greta, serves as a Democratic state representative.
But Neubauer is asking voters to put those connections aside and consider her independent of her family.
“What I ask is that people look at me for my record,” Neubauer said. “I’m really proud of my family and their decisions to contribute to our community and our state in the ways that they’ve chosen. I have very intentionally chosen a different path.”