The candidates running for the open seat on the Wisconsin state Supreme Court have no official party identification.
But really, the April 2 election couldn’t be more partisan, and it has high stakes for the balance of power on the court.
On one side is Brian Hagedorn, a state appeals court judge who has the backing of Republican politicians and conservative groups. He founded a private school that allows for the expulsion of LGBTQ students in 2016, just three years ago. He’s also compared homosexuality with bestiality and delivered paid speeches to an anti-LGBTQ group.
Running against Hagedorn with the support of liberal groups is Lisa Neubauer, the chief judge on the same appeals court. Neubauer’s critics have called her too partisan because she attended a march advocating action on climate change.
Hagedorn worked for former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) as his chief counsel, helping to draft the famous anti-union Act 10 legislation and defending Walker’s voter ID legislation. Neubauer once was an aide to Democratic politicians, her husband ran the state Democratic Party and her daughter is a state legislator.
In an interview with HuffPost, Neubauer said she is the best person to serve on the state Supreme Court because she is “more qualified and experienced,” having served as a judge for over 11 years. She acknowledged once serving as an aide to a Democratic politician but said that was before she went to law school and chose to pursue a different career away from partisan politics.
As for attending the climate march ― “I don’t really see climate change as a partisan issue,” she said.
A campaign ad for Neubauer.
Conservatives hold a 4-3 majority on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, where judges have 10-year terms. If Neubauer wins, that ideological makeup will hold steady, whereas if she loses, conservatives will take a 5-2 lead.
In 2020, a conservative justice on the court will be up for reelection, and Democrats are hopeful they can capture the seat when it’s up during the party’s presidential primary season ― which is expected to have higher Democratic than Republican voter turnout.
These “nonpartisan” races attract millions of dollars in spending. Hagedorn out-raised Neubauer in January, but she has more money in the bank than he does.
This time, outside groups have already spent more than $400,000 in the race, with Neubauer receiving 23 times the amount that’s been spent on Hagedorn. Neubauer has called on outside groups to stay out of the campaign.
Neubauer has the backing of labor unions and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is run by Eric Holder. The former attorney general under President Barack Obama will be traveling to Wisconsin on March 14 and 15.
Hagedorn has the backing of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by the Koch brothers, but he’s had some trouble getting more support ― in large part because of his views on LGBTQ issues.
A campaign ad for Hagedorn.
As a law student in 2005, Hagedorn wrote a blog post condemning a U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a Texas anti-sodomy law, stating, “The idea that homosexual behavior is different than bestiality as a constitutional matter is unjustifiable.”
“There is no right in our Constitution to have sex with whoever or whatever you want in the privacy of your own home (or barn),” he added.
While he was serving as a judge, Hagedorn co-founded Augustine Academy, a Christian school that allows the expulsion of students if they or their parents are gay, and the firing of teachers who are gay.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Hagedorn has also received more than $3,000 to give speeches to the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization that believes in criminalizing sodomy and that has argued for transgender people to be sterilized.
Hagedorn recently told reporters he can put aside his personal views as a judge.
Hagedorn’s campaign has also said he wouldn’t recuse himself from cases involving Planned Parenthood ― which Hagedorn once called a “wicked organization” ― because his personal views are “irrelevant” to the job.
Neubauer said Hagedorn’s writings were significant.
“These writings are not about whether he likes beautiful sunsets,” she said. “These writings are about key important constitutional issues that affect the people of our state in very significant ways.”
But ultimately, she added, the issue isn’t whether Hagedorn believed what he wrote, it’s about whether “the people can have confidence that our court is going to be fair, impartial and independent.”
“We have the people’s confidence that when they walk through those doors, they are going to be met with an open mind,” Neubauer said. “They’re not going to be met with an ideology, an agenda, any thumb on the scale. You know, that somehow it’s rigged against them. We can’t have that in our democracy.”
Hagedorn did not return requests for an interview.
These writings are not about whether he likes beautiful sunsets. These writings are about key important constitutional issues that affect the people of our state in very significant ways. Lisa Neubauer, chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals
After news broke about Hagedorn’s school, the Wisconsin Realtors Association ― a group that typically endorses conservative candidates ― pulled its endorsement of Hagedorn. It also asked him to return the $18,000 donation it made to his campaign.
“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,” said Michael Theo, the association’s president.
Some Republicans attacked the WRA, accusing it of being anti-Christian. But two Republican operatives who have run independent efforts to help conservative Supreme Court candidates in the past wrote an op-ed defending the group, saying it had every right to determine that “some of the judge’s past statements and actions are in conflict with the values and principles of its members.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, usually a reliable backer of Republican candidates, is also sitting out the Wisconsin race.
In 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court was embroiled in another controversy over a candidate’s writings when Rebecca Bradley had to answer questions about her college newspaper columns, in which she called gay people “degenerates” and “queers.” She won that race.
Both candidates in this cycle have sections of their websites touting their endorsements. Neubauer lists a couple dozen sheriffs, chiefs of police and district attorneys, along with more than 340 judges. Hagedorn has slightly more sheriffs, but just five judicial endorsements.
“The Hagedorn campaign is less concerned with Madison and Washington interests and more concerned with Wisconsin voters,” Hagedorn adviser Stephan Thompson said in a statement. “Clearly Eric Holder and liberal groups want to take over the court to accomplish their political agenda, but we’re confident voters prefer a justice who stands by the rule of law.”
Neubauer defended judicial elections, saying it was part of “a long progressive tradition” in the state. She said she valued her time going around Wisconsin and getting firsthand exposure to voters, drug and alcohol treatment courts, public defenders and learning about issues in the justice system. But, she acknowledged, all the money spent to elect “nonpartisan” judges was problematic.
“One of the issues for us as a court system and for our Supreme Court is when do, when does, you know, the fact that a party has spent millions and millions of dollars in a race impact the judge’s ability to sit on a case?” Neubauer asked, adding, “We need to look at the rules about when judges need to recuse.”
Correction: This article originally stated a conservative justice will be retiring in 2020. He will be up for reelection that year.