Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Hagedorn Also Running Against Abrahamson

Conservative Supreme Court candidate keeps bashing the liberal justice, who has cancer and is retiring.

By - Mar 25th, 2019 10:28 am
Brian Hagedorn. Photo courtesy of the Friends of Brian Hagedorn.

Brian Hagedorn. Photo courtesy of the Friends of Brian Hagedorn.

One candidate in the April 2 election for a 10-year term on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals Judge Brian Hagedorn, is campaigning by attacking the justice he wants to replace  – Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

In public forums, Hagedorn said, in his five years as chief lawyer for two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the presence of the liberal Abrahamson on the court meant that Walker, his lawyers and whatever legal arguments they were making would not be treated fairly.

On cases in which the Republican governor was a party, Hagedorn told a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon, “I could tell you how [Abrahamson] was going to vote” – rulings not based on the legal merits of the case but because “she didn’t like my client” and his conservative politics.

Asked what he considered the greatest threat to Wisconsin’s court system at a Milwaukee Bar Association forum, Hagedorn said it was the need to “not let the court be politicized.”

“I have been in court when I didn’t believe where I was going to get a fair hearing, because of my client, in the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” he said. “That should never ever happen.”

Hagedorn was appointed a Court of Appeals judge by Walker in 2015 and elected to a six-year term in 2017.

Hagedorn also warned that the election of his opponent — fellow Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Neubauer -— would continue the “political activist” legacy of “the justice we are seeking to replace.”

Neubauer considers Abrahamson a “model” for how to rule as a Supreme Court justice, Hagedorn added.

Hagedorn’s attacks on Abrahamson may be a risky campaign strategy, because – whatever you think of her past rulings – the 86-year-old retiring justice is a historic figure in Wisconsin’s judicial system. Abrahamson, then a law school professor, was the first woman to serve on the seven-member court when Democratic Gov. Pat Lucey appointed her in 1976. She was easily re-elected in 1979, ’89, ‘99 and 2009. She is the longest-serving justice in Wisconsin history and also the longest-serving chief justice, from 1996 until 2015.

When Abrahamson announced that she would not seek re-election, she said she was being treated for cancer but would serve out her current term, which ends this summer.

Abrahamson is also a member of the three-justice court minority of moderates/liberals.

A four-justice conservative majority has dominated court decisions in recent years — including upholding Walker’s controversial Act 10, passed in 2011, that decimated collective bargaining by public employees and made them pay more for pensions and health care.

When she was chief justice, Abrahamson tightly controlled the court. But Republican legislators, and then voters, amended the Constitution so that the seven justices – and not seniority – pick the court’s chief justice.

That change resulted in a 4-3 vote in 2015 that elected Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.

Neubauer, in a WisconsinEye campaign interview, said Hagedorn is attacking a feminist icon. Abrahamson “was a trailblazer for women,” Neubauer said. “She was the first woman on our Supreme Court. Huge. And she was elected by the people of our state four times.”

Neubauer said she, and other women lawyers, walked through career doors Abrahamson opened. “I’m the first woman on my District 2 Court of Appeals. I’m the first woman who was appointed presiding judge over [District 2] Court of Appeals…I’m the first woman to be a chief judge over our [16-judge] Court of Appeals,” Neubauer said.

“As a woman, I’m honored and proud of that. I have tried to pass that along to many women in my life.”

Neubauer noted that she survived breast cancer, was diagnosed with while she and her husband, Jeff, a former state Democratic Party chairman, had young children.

Although spring Supreme Court elections are supposed to be non-partisan, both candidates are aligned with one of the two parties. Unions, Planned Parenthood and many Democrats back Neubauer, whose daughter, Greta, is a Democratic member of the Assembly. The Neubauers have also donated to Democratic candidates.

Hagedorn’s supporters include Republican Party leaders, anti-abortion groups, Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Bradley and Daniel Kelly, and three former Supreme Court justices – Michael Gableman, David Prosser and Jon Wilcox. Prosser and Wilcox were Republican Assembly members.

Abrahamson declined comment on Hagedorn’s comments.

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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