Candidates for Wisconsin Supreme Court are supposed to be independent and nonpartisan. Yet both judges in the April 2 election have close ties to political parties and are backed by special interests.
Brian Hagedorn was former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s chief legal counsel, fighting for a conservative agenda at the statehouse as recently as 2015. Hagedorn also faulted the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 for rejecting an anti-sodomy law, claiming the decision could lead to the legalization of bestiality. That’s a backward view and offensive comparison — one he refuses to distance himself from today. Hagedorn has been paid thousands of dollars in recent years to speak to a group that has supported criminalizing sodomy and sterilizing transgender people.
All of that creates an appearance of partiality and judicial activism, rather than neutral application of the law.
Lisa Neubauer is the liberal-backed candidate in the race. Her husband was chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and her daughter is a Democratic state lawmaker. She donated money to the campaigns of Democratic politicians before she became a judge, and worked for a Democratic state senator after college.
Neubauer has benefited from $1.2 million in campaign spending by special interests, including support from unions and Planned Parenthood, which creates an appearance of partisan leanings and influence.
We’d much prefer a candidate for the state’s highest court who doesn’t neatly align with one party or the other, and who stays above the political fray with dispassion and respect for the law as written. We fear Wisconsin’s expensive and politically charged judicial elections are scaring away truly independent judges.
Nonetheless, voters have a choice to make April 2, and Neubauer is far more experienced than her opponent, with less baggage and broader support.
The State Journal endorses Neubauer in the state Supreme Court election.
Neubauer, 61, worked for two decades in private practice for a major law firm before joining the District II Court of Appeals 12 years ago. She is now chief judge of her court, which serves a dozen counties surrounding Milwaukee County. She has helped decide more than 3,000 cases. She has far more endorsements from fellow judges across the state, and during a meeting with our editorial board last week exhibited a fair and thoughtful demeanor.
Neubauer said she favors opening up hearings about high-court rules to the public. More transparency, given the state Supreme Court’s contentious past, would help voters to better understand court decisions and encourage civility. Neubauer also can cite important cases in which she has reinforced Wisconsin’s open government laws.
Neubauer wisely recognizes the need for stronger recusal rules for judges to guard against conflicts of interest. The high court’s current rule is lax, allowing a judge to decide if he or she can fairly decide a case, regardless of how much money a plaintiff or defendant may have spent to help elect that judge.
Neubauer’s strong goals include restoring public confidence in the high court, and providing clear and concise guidance in court decisions.
Hagedorn, 41, failed to meet with the State Journal editorial board in recent weeks, which shows less commitment to explaining his judicial views and approach to the public. Some of his early backers, including the Wisconsin Realtors Association, have withdrawn their support of his candidacy because of his outdated and discriminatory views of gay and transgender people.
Neubauer may be linked to the political left via her family and past. Yet she exhibits more independence and wider support than her opponent. Voters should support Neubauer’s election April 2.