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All four candidates for Wisconsin attorney general have said they wouldn't defend certain state laws. All four candidates for Wisconsin attorney general have said they wouldn't defend certain state laws.

All four candidates for Wisconsin attorney general have said they wouldn't defend certain state laws.

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher July 16, 2014

Democratic candidate for attorney general would only defend laws he supports, GOP rival says

"Lawlessness" was the subject of a June 26, 2014 fund-raising email that Brad Schimel, the lone Republican running for Wisconsin attorney general, sent to his supporters.

He attacked President Barack Obama as well as the three Democratic candidates for attorney general, singling out one of them in particular.

"Like President Obama, my Democrat opponents have no respect for the Constitution or rule of law," Schimel wrote. "In fact, one of my opponents went so far to say he would only enforce the laws with which he personally agreed."

Schimel's campaign confirmed the reference was to state Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee.

It’s an extreme claim.

Has Richards said he would only enforce laws he agrees with?

The AG race

Richards and two district attorneys -- Susan Happ of Jefferson County and Ismael Ozanne of Dane County -- will compete in the Aug. 12, 2014 primary, with the winner facing Schimel, the Waukesha County district attorney, in the Nov. 4, 2014 general election. Republican incumbent J.B. Van Hollen is not seeking a third four-year term.

All four candidates have stated they wouldn’t defend certain laws, saying they violate the state or U.S. constitution. That could saddle taxpayers with higher costs because private attorneys could be brought in to do that work.

The three Democrats said they wouldn't defend or appeal rulings on the state's ban on gay marriage, its voter ID law, or recent abortion regulations. Schimel said he would not defend Wisconsin's domestic partnership law, which gives same-sex couples some of the rights of married couples.

Those positions drew criticism from Madison lawyer Lester Pines, who supports Ozanne in the attorney general race. After social conservatives in 2009 sued to block the domestic partnership law, Van Hollen refused to defend it. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle then hired Pines to defend the law.

Wisconsin's attorney general has a legal and professional duty to defend every state law unless the only arguments that can be made on its behalf are frivolous, Pines told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a June 14, 2014 article. Disliking a law or even believing a law is unconstitutional, he said, is not enough to abandon the duty to defend it.

Schimel's claim

Asked to provide evidence for Schimel’s claim, campaign manager Johnny Koremenos argued that Richards has two standards in deciding whether to defend a law, "the Constitution and the ‘wishes of the people.’"

"This signals he will disregard the law and replace it with his perception of the ‘wishes of the people,’" Koremenos said. "It’s clear he is willing to place his own values and personal beliefs above the Constitution."

Koremenos also cited several news articles. But only two of them, both from February 2014, contain comments from Richards about his personal beliefs.

And in neither case does Richards say he would enforce only laws he agrees with.

Featured Fact-check

First, an article in the Madison weekly newspaper Isthmus -- about whether efforts to repeal Wisconsin’s ban on gay marriage could benefit Democrats in the fall 2014 elections -- noted that Richards said in a news release he would not defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, which voters added to the state constitution in 2006.

Richards has said he believes the ban violates the U.S. constitution and that he personally favors allowing same-sex marriage.

"Given Richards’ proactive stance, it's clear he doesn’t see same-sex marriage as a negative on the campaign trail," the Isthmus article stated.

The article also said Richards’ political director, Andy Suchorski, did not disagree with this assessment, but that Richards’ position is "not a political thing for him. It’s something he really believes. It’s why we’re pushing it.’"

That might seem like support for Schimel’s claim. But only regarding one law and only if taken out of context.

Suchorski told us he had been asked a political question -- whether Richards was talking about gay marriage in the campaign because it was good for Democrats -- and had not been asked any legal questions. And the article itself is framed as a political analysis.

Schimel also pointed to the first paragraph of a brief version of an Associated Press news story, which stated Richards had pledged to be "the people’s attorney general" if elected, and that he said Richards wouldn’t defend every state law if he thinks it violates the U.S. Constitution or goes against the wishes of the people.

So, that’s an indication that Richards might not defend some laws if he thinks they are against the public’s wishes, but not that he would defend only laws he supports.

Indeed, the full version of the AP article noted that Richards said he would defend laws with which he disagrees, though he didn’t provide an example during that particular news conference.

However, despite Schimel’s claim, Richards has actually stated that he would defend laws he doesn’t support if he believes they are constitutional.

Richards campaign spokesman Sachin Chheda pointed to three such occasions:

  • In March 2014, Richards told the Waukesha Freeman newspaper: "There are going to be times when there are laws that I voted against and personally might not support but I believe are consistent with the state and United States constitution, so, of course, the Department of Justice will defend them in that situation."

  • In January 2014 on the "Upfront with Mike Gousha" public affairs TV show, Richards was asked if he would vigorously enforce the state’s voter ID law if it is upheld in court. Richards called the law "troubling," but said:  "Obviously, If the law is passed, and a court rules that it’s constitutional, we’ll uphold the law, of course. But I do think the law that’s written really needs some scrutiny."

  • Also in January 2014, Richards was asked by if concealed carry "is the right thing for Wisconsin." Richards said several aspects of the law were "problematic" in terms of public safety, but he added:

"Having said that, I mean, the law is in place and as attorney general I would certainly work to make sure that if people apply for a concealed weapons permit, that it’s handled in a professional manner, quickly and expeditiously, and that we obey the law and we get those permits issued."

Our rating

Schimel said Richards "went so far to say he would only enforce the laws with which he personally agreed."

He provides no evidence that Richards made such a statement. On the contrary, Richards has said on multiple occasions he would enforce laws with which he doesn’t agree.

We rate Schimel’s statement False.

Our Sources

Brad Schimel campaign, email, June 26, 2014

Interview and email interview, Brad Schimel campaign manager Johnny Koremenos, July 2 and 14, 2014

Interview, Jon Richards campaign spokesman Sachin Chheda, July 2 and 14, 2014

Interview, Jon Richards campaign political director Any Suchorski, July 14, 2014

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Attorney general candidates say they wouldn't defend some laws," June 14, 2014

Associated Press,  "Attorney general candidate Jon Richards wouldn't defend 2 state laws," Feb. 13, 2014

Associated Press, "AG candidate Richards offers populist tone," Feb. 12, 2014

Associated Press, "Wis. AG candidate says he won’t defend same-sex marriage ban if elected," Feb. 10, 2014

Isthmus, "Efforts to repeal same-sex marriage ban could benefit Wisconsin’s Democratic candidates," Feb. 12, 2014

Wisconsin State Journal, "Veteran lawmaker Jon Richards wants to be ‘people’s attorney,’" June 5, 2014

WISN-TV, "Upfront with Mike Gousha" interview of Jon Richards, posted Jan. 19, 2014

Waukesha Freeman, "Richards proud of legislative record in AG bid," March 19, 2014, Jon Richards interview, Jan. 30, 2014

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Democratic candidate for attorney general would only defend laws he supports, GOP rival says

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