With the April 2 election less than a week away, the two Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates squared off in a heated, final debate Tuesday.
Judges Lisa Neubauer and Brian Hagedorn are vying for the seat of outgoing liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Whoever wins would be on the court for a 10-year term. The candidates — both currently state appeals court judges — highlighted what they said is a neutral judicial philosophy.
Here’s conservative backed Judge Brian Hagedorn: "I believe my role as a judge is to say what the law is, and not what the law should be. That’s what the rule of law means. It means it’s not what I think, it’s not my policy preferences, it’s not 'Is this fair or unfair?,' it’s not 'Do I like it or not like it?,' it’s not 'Was this passed by Republicans or Democrats?,’ it’s 'What does the law actually say?'"
And liberal backed Judge Lisa Neubauer outlined this approach: "I follow the Constitution, and I follow the law. That everyone that comes into our courts, whether it’s at the circuit court level, the court of appeals or the supreme court needs to have confidence that there’s no ideology, no thumb on the scale, no predetermined outcome."
But each also accused the other of being partisan and having a temperament problem. Neubauer pointed out Hagedorn’s law school blog posts — in which he laid forth his conservative views. In the posts he called Planned Parenthood a "wicked organization" and denounced court rulings on gay rights by equating homosexuality with bestiality.
Neubauer said it’s not just Hagedorn’s law school-era writings that are problematic, it’s also his actions. "Starting a school that bans gay children, teachers, parents; taking money from a group that’s labeled as a hate group because their views are so extreme; criminalizing same-sex; sterilizing transgender people. He has done that as a judge, when the robes are on," she said.
Hagedorn accused Neubauer of lying. Hagedorn said he did start a Christian school that has a code of conduct for teachers, not parents or students. He said Neubauer is attacking him over his personal beliefs. "I think it’s really unfortunate Judge Neubauer, that you want to sacrifice your integrity to win a seat on the Supreme Court. I’m happy to talk about these issues here, but I think this kind of name calling, the vile name-calling that my opponent is doing here is unbecoming of a judge. That’s a temperament problem."
Hagedorn, who’s an Evangelical Christian, said he treats people with respect and shouldn’t be attacked because of his faith. He added that Neubauer can’t list one case in which he has allowed his personal views to impact his decision making.
The conversation then turned to outside special interest money and recusal. Judicial recusal means stepping aside from a case, including because the judge or justice has received money from a party to the case.
Neubauer was asked whether she would recuse herself from a case involving President Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder’s group that has worked against partisan redistricting in Wisconsin if it came before the Supreme Court. It’s a group that has donated about $350,000 to Neubauer’s campaign.
"Do you know what I have said is that I would not sit in on a case involving that group. And, again, I think we need to go forward, we need to think forward," said Neubauer. "I called on the outside money to stay out of this race, it’s obviously in. So, the question is who do you want, voters, public, to go on that Supreme Court and work, really work, towards getting our court so that it is, in fact, a non-partisan branch?"
Neubauer has said she’s open to strengthening the court’s current rules on recusal.
For Hagedorn’s part, a Republican group announced Tuesday that it would spend $1 million on ads and mailings to help his campaign. Hagedorn said people who come before the court should feel like it’s a place where money doesn’t influence decisions. He also said he would recuse himself from cases involving things that he has written about, like Planned Parenthood, or issues that he worked on as chief legal counsel for former Gov. Scott Walker.
"Of course, there’s direct conflicts that could come, for example if I worked on an issue, then I would recuse from that type of issue that came about," said Hagedorn. "Same rule that would apply to any other judges. Again, going back to Justice Kagan, when she was nominated by President Obama, she did not sit on cases that she worked on when she was in the Solicitor General’s Office."
If Hagedorn wins the election on Tuesday, the conservative majority on the court would expand to 5-2. If liberals retain the seat with Neubauer, it would set up a battle for control of the court next year, when conservative Justice Dan Kelly’s seat is up.
Editor's note: The audio in this story is courtesy of WISN 12 TV.