Lib­er­als eye 2020 takeover of Wis­con­sin Supreme Court

Texarkana Gazette - - NATION/WORLD - By Scott Bauer

MADI­SON, Wis.—Wis­con­sin lib­er­als hope to take a key step this spring toward break­ing a long con­ser­va­tive stran­gle­hold on the state's Supreme Court, in an elec­tion that could also serve as a barom­e­ter of the po­lit­i­cal mood in a key pres­i­den­tial swing state.

If the lib­eral-backed can­di­date wins the April 2 state Supreme Court race, lib­er­als would be in prime po­si­tion to take over the court when the next seat comes up in 2020—dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial pri­mary when Democrats ex­pect to ben­e­fit from strong turnout.

The bit­terly par­ti­san court, which con­ser­va­tives have con­trolled since 2008, has up­held sev­eral po­lar­iz­ing Repub­li­can­backed laws, none more so than for­mer GOP Gov. Scott Walker's law that es­sen­tially elim­i­nated col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for pub­lic work­ers.

If lib­er­als can win in April and again in 2020, they would have the ma­jor­ity un­til at least 2025.

"It is ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal we win this race," lib­eral at­tor­ney Tim Burns, who lost a Wis­con­sin Supreme Court race in 2018, said of the April elec­tion. "It does set us up for next year to get a court that's likely to look very dif­fer­ently on is­sues of the day like vot­ers' rights and ger­ry­man­der­ing."

The court could face big de­ci­sions on sev­eral par­ti­san is­sues in the com­ing years, in­clud­ing on the next round of re­dis­trict­ing that fol­lows the 2020 Cen­sus, law­suits chal­leng­ing the mas­sive Fox­conn Tech­nol­ogy Group project backed by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, and at­tempts to undo laws that Repub­li­cans passed dur­ing a re­cent lame-duck ses­sion to weaken the in­com­ing Demo­cratic gover­nor be­fore he took of­fice.

A group run by for­mer Demo­cratic U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder that fights ger­ry­man­dered maps spent money sup­port­ing the win­ning lib­eral can­di­date in last year's Wis­con­sin Supreme Court race. It was ex­pected to do so again this spring ahead of the next round of re­dis­trict­ing.

Given that Wis­con­sin now has a Demo­cratic gover­nor and Repub­li­can-dom­i­nated Leg­is­la­ture, the courts will in­creas­ingly serve as the bat­tle­ground where dis­putes will be re­solved, said Dou­glas Keith, coun­sel for the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, which tracks spend­ing in ju­di­cial races.

Keith said he ex­pects mil­lions to be spent on the April race by out­side groups even though ma­jor­ity con­trol won't shift by its re­sult alone.

This year's race, which is of­fi­cially non­par­ti­san, pits lib­eral-backed chief state Ap­peals Court Judge Lisa Neubauer against fel­low Ap­peals Court Judge Brian Hage­dorn, the choice of con­ser­va­tives.

"This is likely go­ing to be the race that de­ter­mines the phi­los­o­phy that will gov­ern the Supreme Court for the next 10 to 20 years," Hage­dorn said in an in­ter­view. "Peo­ple un­der­stand what's at stake in this race."

Lib­er­als are con­fi­dent the elec­torate is on their side. Lib­er­al­backed Re­becca Dal­let won a spot on the high court last year in a race where she ran a tele­vi­sion ad crit­i­cal of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Democrats cap­tured ev­ery statewide race in 2018 and re­cent polls show vot­ers sid­ing with Democrats on a host of is­sues raised dur­ing that elec­tion.

Trump be­came the first Repub­li­can to carry Wis­con­sin since Ron­ald Rea­gan in 1984, and Democrats are de­ter­mined to put the state back in their col­umn in 2020. The re­sult of April's court race will be read as the lat­est in­di­ca­tor of their prospects.

"They are hold­ing a good hand," said Repub­li­can strate­gist and long­time court watcher Brian Ne­moir. "But we are in a pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal swings right now. What's true yes­ter­day may not be true to­mor­row."

Democrats are even more con­fi­dent about 2020, when con­ser­va­tive Jus­tice Dan Kelly will be up for re-elec­tion. That race takes place dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial pri­mary that should have heavy turnout by Democrats—but not by Repub­li­cans, with Trump at this stage un­likely to face a se­ri­ous pri­mary chal­lenge.

Leg­isla­tive Repub­li­cans were so con­cerned about los­ing the Kelly seat that they ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered mov­ing the pri­mary date to im­prove his chances, but they ul­ti­mately dropped the idea amid wide­spread crit­i­cism.

Both Hage­dorn and Neubauer pitch them­selves as im­par­tial, de­spite hav­ing par­ti­san ties.

"I am not run­ning for the Supreme Court to pro­mote any pol­icy agenda what­so­ever, whether Gover­nor Walker's or Gover­nor Evers'," Hage­dorn said. "My job doesn't change one bit de­pend­ing on who the gover­nor is or who con­trols the Leg­is­la­ture."

Hage­dorn, 41, served as a law clerk for state Supreme Court Jus­tice Michael Gable­man, whose vic­tory in 2008 gave con­ser­va­tives con­trol of the court. Hage­dorn served as an as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral, worked in pri­vate prac­tice and was Walker's chief le­gal coun­sel for nearly five years. Walker ap­pointed him to the state ap­peals court in 2015 and Hage­dorn won elec­tion two years later.

Hage­dorn's law school blog from 2005 and 2006 has be­come a flash­point in the race. He wrote about his evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian be­liefs, call­ing Planned Par­ent­hood a "wicked or­ga­ni­za­tion" and de­nounc­ing court rul­ings fa­vor­ing gay rights by liken­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity to bes­tial­ity.

Hage­dorn hasn't apol­o­gized for what he wrote and said his per­sonal views don't af­fect his ju­di­cial rul­ings. Neubauer said she was sur­prised by the posts, but she de­clined to com­ment be­yond that.

Neubauer, 61, was ap­pointed to the ap­peals court in 2007 by for­mer Demo­cratic Gov. Jim Doyle. She pre­vi­ously do­nated $8,100 to Doyle.

Neubauer was elected to the ap­peals court in 2008, re-elected in 2014 and has been chief judge since 2015. She spent al­most 20 years as an at­tor­ney in pri­vate prac­tice.

Both can­di­dates cite bi­par­ti­san en­dorse­ments as proof that they would be im­par­tial.

Neubauer's cam­paign is full of Demo­cratic op­er­a­tives, in­clud­ing Scott Spec­tor, who man­aged Demo­cratic Sen. Tammy Bald­win's re-elec­tion vic­tory last year. Hage­dorn's cam­paign is run by Stephan Thomp­son, a for­mer Walker cam­paign man­ager.

Neubauer's hus­band, Jeff, was a for­mer Demo­cratic leg­is­la­tor and past chair­man of the Wis­con­sin Demo­cratic Party while her daugh­ter, Greta Neubauer, is cur­rently a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Racine.

"I have cho­sen a very dif­fer­ent path than my fam­ily," Neubauer said. "I would ask to be judged on the path that I've cho­sen and my path is as a judge."

The win­ner will serve a 10-year term.

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