“Get involved. The world is run by those who show up” – Bumper sticker

Wisconsin has another important Supreme Court election on April 2nd. This is an election that people need to take seriously. Who gets elected can make a difference to people’s lives. People need to show up!

This year’s election is similar to the Supreme Court race in 2018. The choice is between two sitting judges and the qualifications of the two candidates varies significantly. Judge Lisa Neubauer is an experienced, qualified, non-partisan, candidate. Judge Brian Hagedorn has limited experience, less impressive qualifications, and obvious partisan connections. Hagedorn has the backing of conservative, Republican big money donors. This raises concerns about the degree of objectivity he would bring to the court.

Judge Lisa Neubauer has served on the Wisconsin Appeals Court for 11 years. She was appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle in 2007 and won election in 2008 and 2014. She has served as chief judge since 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in 1979 (Political Science) and University of Chicago Law School in 1987. She worked at a Milwaukee law firm until 2007 rising to be a partner. She is involved with many community and professional groups and volunteer activities.

Judge Brian Hagedorn has served on the Wisconsin Appeals Court three years. He was appointed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2015 and won election to the court in 2017. He was chief legal counsel for Gov. Walker for five years prior to his appointment. After graduating from Northwestern University School of Law in 2006, he worked in private practice for three years. He was a law clerk for conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman for one year and an assistant attorney general for one year with the Wisconsin Department of Justice. His undergraduate degree is from Trinity International University, a private religious college. The only community involvement listed on his campaign web site is being active in his church.

Currently the conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court hold a 4-3 majority. This year’s election is to replace retiring liberal justice Shirley Abrahamson. If conservatives win, they will dominate court for decades. If liberals win, they will have a shot at taking the majority 2020. In that election Justice Dan Kelly, appointed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2016, is up for election.

Why is this important? Shouldn’t judges be non-partisan and apply the law fairly regardless of their political views? That is the theory. But in the real world judges, like other politicians, are shaped by their backgrounds and beliefs. A judge’s political philosophy will influence how they rule on cases involving social issues. It is a fallacy to think politics is not involved in judicial decisions. Voters should look at who the candidates are, what they believe, and their political orientation.

Judge Hagedorn claims to be non-partisan. But his campaign website indicates he has the standard conservative judicial philosophy. On his campaign website he talks about interpreting the law “as it was written” and is concerned about “government overreach.” He says, “This includes certain rights that some today wish weren’t protected, like the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to bear arms.” All this sounds good. But this is really only rhetoric to justify rulings against social legislation, business regulations, and equal rights laws. In other words, it is a high-sounding legalistic justification for advancing the right wing Republican political agenda.

In contrast, Judge Neubauer is concerned about the partisan influence on judicial elections. She has publicly asked all outside groups to stay out of the race. She does not want to be labelled as the Democratic or liberal candidate. She has said “It’s really unfortunate that our independent courts are sort of treated as partisan playgrounds. There’s nothing good about outside money—special interest money—coming in to influence court elections.”

A look at the public endorsements for both candidates is also informative. Judge Neubauer’s web site lists hundreds of current and former judges, district attorney’s, police chiefs and sheriffs from all over the state. Clearly Judge Neubauer has wide respect and support across partisan lines. Judge Hagedorn’s web site lists five current and former Republican Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices and some county sheriffs. There are no lower courts judges or district attorneys listed.

The work of judges involves interpreting and applying the law (or contradictory laws) to a specific case. Extenuating circumstances, motives, contradictory testimony, and specific facts must be considered. Fair, consistent resolution of cases requires more than “saying what the law is.” These considerations require judgment calls by judges. In the process judges DO create law (called case law) and establish consistent application of law (called precedents). Over time, as society, community standards, and technology changes, these rulings adapt the law to new situations. This is the normal process of courts and is necessary for justice.

Judge Lisa Neubauer is clearly the better qualified candidate. She is also the most likely to be impartial and non-partisan.