Wisconsin Supreme Court hopeful defends views on gay rights

March 7, 2019

MILWAUKEE A conservative candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court whose views on gay rights have come under scrutiny said Wednesday the criticism he's received is an unfair attack on his faith.

State Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn blamed his opponents for making his personal beliefs part of his candidacy and insisted that he would be an impartial justice. Hagedorn is an evangelical Christian who helped start a private school where students can be expelled for being gay.

"The articles are attacking a statement of faith," Hagedorn said, answering questions at the Milwaukee Press Club. He was referring to coverage about his private school and a personal blog he kept more than a decade ago, where he once opined that a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas anti-sodomy law could lead to the legalization of bestiality.

"Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. That's the way I've conducted myself, that's the way I've always conducted myself," Hagedorn said, insisting that he doesn't allow his personal beliefs to influence his judicial work. "What we have here are people who I think want me to sign on to a moral and religious code of themselves. And if I don't sign on to it they're saying I am not fit for public office."

Hagedorn is running against state Appeals Court Judge Lisa Neubauer, who is backed by liberals. The April 2 contest gives liberals a chance to control the Supreme Court if they win this race and another seat up for election next year. Conservatives currently control the court 4-3.

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.

The race has drawn the attention of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced Monday that his National Democratic Redistricting Committee will spend $350,000 to help Neubauer.

Also on Wednesday, the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee launched an attack ad against Hagedorn that it said was running on broadcast and cable channels as well as digitally. The spot says Hagedorn's past comments and actions show that he can't be trusted to be fair. The group last month reported spending $10,000 on a digital ad, but how much it was spending on the latest effort was not immediately disclosed.

Hagedorn previously argued that the U.S. Constitution gives deference to the states on whether to allow prayer in schools and that nothing in the Constitution bars a state from declaring its own official religion. But he reversed course in an email to the Journal Sentinel Tuesday, saying that "under current doctrine, it is clear no state may establish their own religion."

Senate Republican grills Wisconsin DNR chief at hearing

MADISON, Wis.  The leader of the Wisconsin Senate's sporting heritage committee spent more than three hours interrogating Gov. Tony Evers' pick for Department of Natural Resources secretary during a confirmation hearing Thursday, peppering him with questions about his management style and how tough he would be on polluters.

Minocqua Republican Tom Tiffany said he was worried about going back to the "dark Doyle days," when then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's secretaries ran the DNR. Republicans felt the agency threw up too many regulatory roadblocks to business expansion under Doyle and they spent the last eight years under GOP Gov. Scott Walker rolling back environmental protections, to the benefit of industry.

Tiffany's questions for new DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole focused on his leadership style, signaling that the GOP is worried that Evers will take a firmer hand on regulation.

"I have confidence in (Cole), but who's going to run the Department of Natural Resources? Is it going to be the east wing?" Tiffany said, referring the section of the state Capitol that houses Evers' office. "We want them to do their job as regulators, but we don't want to go back to the dark Doyle days."

Tiffany asked Cole how he differs from Evers and how he would approach things if he and Evers disagreed about an issue. Cole, keeping his voice even, responded that Evers hired him and if they disagreed he would act not just as an employee but as an adviser.

Tiffany went on to ask Cole how he would combat "bloat" in the DNR and how he would deal with employees who believe the DNR has more authority than it does under state law, at one point calling DNR Assistant Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs "a one-man wrecking ball" on water regulation. Ambs led the agency's water division under Doyle and most recently worked as director of Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which works to preserve the Great Lakes, before Cole brought him back to the DNR in January.

Cole defended Ambs as "honest, trustworthy and brave."

Tiffany also questioned Cole on how he'll approach pollution enforcement, asking if the department will measure success by the number of compliance agreements or violations cited.

"Maybe a little of both," Cole said. "You have the enforcement arm of the organization for a reason."

Tiffany also complained that he'd heard from some businesses that the DNR had "slow-rolled" permits for wetland construction. Cole said hadn't heard that term before and added that the agency was within its self-imposed deadlines for issuing general and individual permits.

The committee also questioned Cole on the lack of a long-term strategy for dealing with chronic wasting disease. The fatal deer brain disease has spread to 26 counties since it was discovered near Mount Horeb in 2002. Walker took a largely hands-off approach, drawing the ire of conservationists and Democrats. Evers' state budget doesn't call for any additional money to combat the disease or offer a long-term plan to slow its spread.

Cole said the agency wants to continue researching the disease and watching what other states do in an effort to save money. He noted that Michigan State University is working on a test that would allow hunters to confirm whether their kills are infected within days. He also said the agency is in the midst of a four-year deer mortality study that will inform strategy. The agency is about two years into the study.

"We're going to let the science come to us," he said. "It's a multi-faceted issue. We're on it."

Tiffany seemed frustrated with that response.

"Gov. Walker took tremendous heat for not doing something about CWD and you guys can't commit to doing something by 2020?" Tiffany said.

His questioning was so extensive that at one point, his fellow Republican, Sen. Devin LeMahieum, said he had to ask a question because "I need a break from listening to Tom talk."

It's unclear if or when the committee will vote on whether to recommend the full Senate confirm Cole. Tiffany said after the hearing he needs to consider whether Cole is a good choice for secretary and he needs to confer with GOP leadership.

Cole can serve until the Senate votes to reject his appointment.

Evers' capital budget calls for $2 billion in new borrowing

MADISON, Wis. Gov. Tony Evers' capital budget proposal calls for borrowing $2 billion over the next two fiscal years for projects ranging from building new juvenile corrections facilities, a new state office building in Milwaukee and upgrading buildings around the University of Wisconsin System.

The proposal must pass both the state building commission and the Legislature's budget-writing committee.

The plan calls for $90 million in new borrowing to help build three new facilities for juvenile inmates to replace the state's troubled youth prison near Irma. State law already has authorized $25 million in borrowing for the project.

The budget also calls for $94 million in new borrowing to help build a new state office building and parking structure in Milwaukee and nearly $900 million in new borrowing for UW projects.



Associated Press