Wisconsin Supreme Court race

NEWS ANALYSIS: Anti-gay bigot chosen by Scott Walker on the April 2 ballot for Wisconsin Supreme Court

Republican Brian Hagedorn squares off against Democrat-backed Lisa Neubauer

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Progressive groups and leaders are lambasting Republican Supreme Court nominee Brian Hagedorn as unqualified following revelations that he penned homophobic, misogynistic, racist and extremely partisan blog posts.

Hagedorn, who served as a legal counsel for Scott Walker’s administration, faces Democrat-backed nominee Lisa Neubauer on April 2 for a vacant seat on the state’s high court. It’s an open seat made vacant by the retirement of liberal former chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

A win by Hagedorn would move the conservative-dominated court farther to the right — from a 4-3 majority to a 5-2 advantage.

Neubauer was appointed to the 2nd District Court of Appeals in 2007 by ex-Gov. Jim Doyle. Running as an incumbent, she went on to win races at the ballot box both in 2008 and 2014. She currently serves as chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, a position to which she was appointed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Walker appointed Hagerdon to the 2nd District Court of Appeals in 2016, setting up his former lawyer for election to a six-year term in 2017.

Republicans hope that Walker’s stamp of approval, along with Hagedorn’s anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice writings, will spur diehard Republicans, especially fundamentalist Christians, to the polls in what is likely to be a very low turnout election.

‘Radical, partisan agenda’

For years, Hagedorn wrote blogs strongly supporting Republicans and GOP policy, calling into question his ability to make impartial decisions — although few Wisconsinites are naïve enough to believe that any of the justices are politically neutral.

But Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative journalist Dan Bice reported that before joining the Walker administration Hagedorn also regularly wrote blog posts dehumanizing members of the LGBTQ community.

“The idea that homosexual behavior is different than bestiality as a constitutional matter is unjustifiable,” Hagedorn wrote on a blog responding to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Texas’ anti-sodomy law in 2003.

Hagedorn wrote equally bilious posts concerning pro-choice activists and liberals. He upbraided the NAACP as a “partisan hack” and a “disgrace to America.”

“Hateful statements like these are wholly disqualifying,” said Martha Laning, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “Wisconsinites expect their judicial system to be fair and independent, but Hagedorn’s extreme beliefs and radical, partisan agenda put him out-of-step with these values. Hatred like this goes against everything we in Wisconsin believe in, and it has no place on our state’s highest bench.” 

Hagedorn's spokesperson offered no apology for his boss’ past remarks in a statement released to Bice, and he declined to acknowledge whether Hagedorn still held those beliefs.

Hagedorn has said that in his judicial role he treats everyone equally.

Acting on homophobia

But it’s evident that Hagedorn not only continues to hold homophobic views, but even acts on them in his personal life.

FAIR Wisconsin Executive Director Megin McDonell noted that Hagedorn put his homophobia into action when, as Walker’s lawyer, he was part of a legal effort by the Walker administration to overturn a Wisconsin law providing basic rights for LGBTQ couples, including rights as basic as hospital visitation and inheritance for same-sex partners.

“There is no reason to trust he won’t do it again given the opportunity on the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” said Fair Wisconsin executive director Megin McDonnell.

In 2016, after Walker appointed him to the judiciary, Hagedorn helped found the Augustine Academy, a private school whose official policy bans members of the LGBTQ community from working there. The school also bans LGBTQ students and students whose parents are LGBTQ.

Hagedorn continues to serve on the school’s board of directors, according to One Wisconsin Now.

Neubauer currently serves as chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

“Judges are tasked with a sacred duty to uphold equal treatment for all people under the law. As someone who has publicly and unabashedly voiced contempt for LGBTQ equality, Brian Hagedorn’s record is disqualifying,” said Wendy Strout, Wisconsin state director for the Human Rights Campaign.

Referendum on controversial rulings?

Off year Supreme Court elections, especially those held in the spring, draw very few voters to the polls. But this year, informed voters might be motivated more than usual.

Democrats, Independents and Republicans have all been paying more attention to the court in response to what most people consider to be the egregious decisions it has made in recent years.

One such decision drew ridicule and condemnation from leading legal experts worldwide. Conservatives on the court voted to adopt a law allowing justices to hear cases involving their major campaign contributors rather than forcing them to recuse themselves, as they do in other states.

Even worse, the Republican-affiliated justices approved verbatim a non-recusal law written by the Realtors Association®, which strongly supported them financially in their bids for office.

That decision virtually proved that the Realtors Association®, like other large donors, had stacked the Wisconsin Supreme court with justices beholden to their corporate interests. And, indeed, the court has ruled repeatedly in favor of the association’s business interests, as well as those of other major corporate donors.

The Center for American Progress and other legal groups and scholars say that strong recusal rules are crucial to avoid the situation in which the Wisconsin Supreme Court now finds itself. Every ruling of the court that involves the interests of high-stakes donors comes with the suspicion that it was bought. Thus, such decisions lack legitimacy in the minds of a large swath of citizens.

Republicans hope Walker’s stamp of approval and Hagedorn’s anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice writings, will drive fundamentalist Christians to the polls.

Hagedorn compromised by donors

Hagedorn once clerked for controversial former Justice Michael Gableman, who was heartily supported by the Wisconsin Realtors Association®. And Gableman ruled continually in its favor.

The association is now lining up behind Hagedorn. The group already has loaded his campaign with an $18,000 contribution, according to the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.

But Hagedorn has an even more embarrassing major donor.

Michael White, the owner Rite-Hite Co., donated $20,000 to Hagedorn on Nov. 20, 2018, according to state campaign finance records. That’s the maximum individual contribution allowed by law to a campaign.

White is still free to contribute unlimited donations to “dark money” political action committees working on behalf of Hagedorn’s campaign. Such groups do not have to identify their donors, but they can run ads promoting any message they want, so long as the ads don’t overtly urge voting for Hagedorn. (In an extraordinary ruling, the conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court defied federal law by ruling that campaign coordination between PACs and campaigns is legal. Wisconsin is one of only two states that allow such a universally scorned policy.)

White is controversial because he’s shown that he’s willing to do more than just write checks to influence elections. He’s also virtually blackmailed his workers to vote according to his wishes.

According to news reports, employees of White received an email from him at work in late October 2012 warning of “personal consequences” if President Barack Obama were to be re-elected.

According to state campaign finance records, on Nov. 20, 2018.

“Brian Hagedorn’s largest individual donor literally threatened the livelihoods of the employees of his company if an election did not go his way,” said One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross in a press release. “How in good conscience can someone who wants to sit on the state high court take $20,000 from someone willing to use these kinds of tactics to get their way?”

Among the specific threats White made to the company’s employees were the elimination of their retirement savings plans and the loss of their employer provided health care, if Obama was re-elected.

“Every opportunity to make up for lost profits to taxes will have to be evaluated,” White wrote.

In addition to crossing the line into bad taste, White’s electioneering may also have been illegal. Wisconsin state law prohibits threats against employees over the outcomes of elections by their employers, said One Wisconsin Now.

Republicans willing to spend

Last year, when Democrat-backed state Supreme Court candidate Rebecca Dallet defeated Michael Screnock, Walker’s hand-picked candidate for the seat, prognosticators — including Walker — correctly saw it as a troubling sign of trouble ahead for the state GOP in the mid-term elections.

Before the election, Republicans appeared confident, failing to arm Screnock with strong enough funding for political ads in what was clearly a backlash year against the GOP.

But Republicans appear determined to avoid underspending this year.

The conservative blog Right Wisconsin reported that Hagedorn “is already showing more organizational strength than Screnock's campaign.”

RW reported that Hagedorn’s campaign already has raised $310,629.58, “almost three times as much as Screnock and almost $100,000 more than Justice Rebecca Dallet raised at this point in the campaign.”

Ultimately, of course, the race depends on whether the coalition of women, students, Millennials, and people of color that defeated Walker at the polls last year holds together and turns out to vote on April 2.

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