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'I'm doing exactly what I said I would do': Justice Hagedorn on challenges facing state Supreme Court

Posted at 6:28 PM, Oct 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-15 23:32:41-04

MILWAUKEE — It seems like Wisconsin's political battles are becoming more and more like legal battles for the state Supreme Court. But even the court is sometimes seen as political. Is it? Charles Benson talked with Justice Brian Hagedorn about the court's role during hyper-partisan times.

Justice Hagedorn is one of seven on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and now the only male on the court. He was elected in 2019 with big financial support from conservative groups but at times he has surprised them.

Benson: "What would you say to people who thought: Well gee I thought he was the conservative judge: 'What's up with Justice Hagedorn?'"

Before Justice Hagedorn answers that question, let's look at his first term on the state Supreme Court.

It seems like it has been non-stop high-profile decisions surrounding the pandemic and elections during politically charged times.

Benson: "Do you have concerns the courts are being asked to be the referee in more political battles vs. legal battles?"

Justice Hagedorn: "I do have some concerns on that. There's something fundamentally off about democracy when every single political question becomes a legal question at the same time. I don't think that's healthy."

But Hagedorn knows the high court has the final authority take on tough cases when it involves state law.

"I think the way you handle a politically charged case is to handle it like any case," said Justice Hagedorn.

Gov. Tony Evers' Safer at Home order, with restrictions on businesses and gatherings, was one of those politically charged cases.

The Republican-controlled legislature said the Department of Health Services did not have the power to issue such a sweeping order during a pandemic.

At the time the court leaned 5-2 for conservatives - but Safer At Home was struck down 4-3 - with Justice Hagedorn siding with the minority.

In his 50-plus page dissent, Hagedorn wrote: "It is a temporary order issued to address the outbreak of a particular communicable disease."

"I can say faithfully I have followed the law in every case," said Justice Hagedorn, "and I know not everybody's going to like every decision I make."

A majority of opinions last term were unanimous, 42% according to SCOWstats, a blog by Marquette History Professor Alan Ball. 26% were 4-3 or 3-2 decisions.

SCOWstats says Justice Hagedorn was a bit less likely to vote with the other conservative justices in non-unanimous decisions.

Which brings us back to our question.

Benson: "What would you say to people who thought: Well gee I thought he was the conservative judge: 'What's up with Justice Hagedorn?'"

Justice Hagedorn: "Well what I would say is I'm doing exactly what I said I would do. To me. If I can put my head down at night and feel like I've done my job with integrity, that's what matters."

Justices serve ten year terms, Hagedorn is in his the second year of his term and like many of us today is spending a lot of time on zoom. The seven justices have not met all in one place for months.

Watch Benson's full report tonight on TMJ4 News at Ten.

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