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‘A toxic race:’ Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates spar over partisanship

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Lisa Neubauer and Brian Hagedorn cast each other Friday as tools of partisan interests who can’t be trusted, with both arguing in a debate that they are fair and impartial while their opponent in the April 2 election is not.

Hagedorn, who is backed by conservatives, accused fellow state appeals court judge Neubauer, who is supported by liberals, of “shameful” attacks against him.

“She has been continuing to pass on all the smears and talking points that we’ve seen in this race,” he said. “She’s been an active participant at making this a toxic race.”

Neubauer emphasized her endorsements from more than 345 judges, arguing that she will be fair, impartial and independent, while accusing Hagedorn of having a “significant partisan history.” She repeatedly noted Hagedorn’s work for five years as former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s attorney, blog posts he made while in law school critical of gay rights, abortion and other issues, his founding of a private Christian school where gay students can be expelled and his support from a conservative group that’s part of the Koch brothers’ network.

“The voters need to look at that and ask if this person can be trusted to be fair, impartial and independent,” she said.

Hagedorn, an evangelical Christian, said in both his professional and personal life he always has treated people with respect. He accused Neubauer of attacking him over his personal beliefs.

“Nobody can point to any example of me ever bringing my own faith into any decision making,” Hagedorn said.

He also defended his work for Walker, saying he offered legal advice on behalf of his client and never made a decision.

“There’s actually nothing wrong working in public service as I’ve done,” Hagedorn said, challenging anyone to find partisan bias in any of his judicial rulings. Hagedorn accused Neubauer of wanting to turn the Supreme Court into the “partisan playground” of liberal special interests, a point he also made in a new television ad released earlier Friday.

The winner will replace retiring liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson on the court that is currently controlled 4-3 by conservatives.

While the race won’t change control of the court this year, a Neubauer win would make it possible for liberals to gain the majority in 2020 when conservative Justice Dan Kelly is up for election. Conservatives have controlled the Wisconsin Supreme Court since 2008. If liberals can take it over, they would have control until at least 2025. The winner will serve a 10-year term.

Neubauer repeated during the debate that she opposes outside spending in the race.

Former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Wisconsin on Thursday and Friday to rally support for Neubauer. A group he runs was spending $350,000 on the race, even though Neubauer has asked that his organization and others stay out of the race.

Neubauer has also benefited from more than $400,000 in spending by other liberal groups and unions that are helping to get her elected. The conservative Americans for Prosperity has spent about $17,000 to canvass for Hagedorn, but other groups that typically get involved in Wisconsin Supreme Court races — like the chamber of commerce — have been inactive.

Hagedorn said during the debate he is not coordinating with outside groups, and Neubauer told reporters afterward that she is not coordinating.

Neubauer said in the debate she should be judged by her record as a judge over the past 11 years.

Hagedorn said Neubauer wasn’t being honest about her judicial philosophy. He pledged to be loyal to the law as written and not put his “thumb on the scale” to help political allies. He named conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Neil Gorsuch as role models.

Hagedorn has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and two current Supreme Court justices, along with three former justices.

Neubauer was appointed to the appeals court in 2007 by former Democratic Gov. Jim 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.

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