Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me
– George Orwell, 1984

Let’s set aside (for a moment) the bizarre circumstance of Deb Jordahl and R.J. Johnson submitting an op-ed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, of all places. I guess all is forgiven and forgotten from the days of the newspaper’s coverage of the John Doe II probe, and maybe the editor of The Progressive turned them down. But, as I said, let’s set that bizarre decision by Jordahl and Johnson aside for a moment.

Jordahl and Johnson are attempting in that op-ed to defend the Wisconsin Realtors Association (WRA) from criticism by conservatives who felt betrayed by the organization’s decision to withdraw its endorsement of Judge Brian Hagedorn in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

“If WRA’s critics were being honest, they would acknowledge that the WRA has every right to consider Hagedorn’s extensive written record and determine whether those views are intolerant and out of the mainstream of public opinion and that of their members,” they wrote in bold type.

The J-team continued with their straw men construction by claiming conservatives are attempting to deny the organization’s First Amendment rights.

“No one, including the WRA, is disputing Judge Hagedorn’s right to his beliefs,” they wrote. “And no one should dispute the WRA’s right to free speech and association based on their own values and beliefs.”

They added that the Realtors are a trade organization only, dedicated only to the special interest’s needs, and “not a group of anti-religious zealots or zealots of any kind.”

“And when the WRA determined that they could no longer support Judge Hagedorn that was also their First Amendment right,” Jordahl and Johnson wrote. “Especially when you consider that Judge Hagedorn says he stands by everything he has written.” (Again, in bold type.)

Let’s point out the obvious. Contrary to what Jordahl and Johnson wrote, public criticism of the WRA is not an attempt to deny the organization’s ability to exercise its First Amendment rights. No prominent conservative is calling for the organization to be silenced, nor is any prominent conservative saying the WRA should be forced to support Hagedorn.

As the Journal Sentinel reported, the two most prominent critics of the WRA were Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) and Sen. Dave Craig (R-Big Bend).

Nowhere in those statements is there an attempt to prohibit the Realtors from exercising their First Amendment rights or to force them to continue to endorse a candidate who, as Jordahl and Johnson claim, has “views are intolerant and out of the mainstream of public opinion and that of their members.”

Stroebel does criticize the organization for hostility towards Hagedorn’s faith. And he has a point. For while Jordahl and Johnson claim the Realtors are not hostile to Hagedorn’s personal beliefs, consider that the criticisms directed at Hagedorn include no instance of allowing his faith to color his legal opinions as an Appeals Court Judge.

Instead, the criticisms of Hagedorn are strictly on two points: 1) Hagedorn stating on his blog before he became a judge that legalizing sodomy could lead to legalizing bestiality and incest, and 2) Hagedorn serving on the board of a Christian school that has standards of conduct that do not allow homosexual behavior by the staff.

In the case of the former, what may have been hyperbole may still bear out. What was once taboo is gaining more public acceptance including plural marriage, incest, and bestiality. Not that long ago, it was unthinkable that the courts would overrule state laws prohibiting gay marriage. Governor Jim Doyle even publicly criticized attempts to define marriage in the state constitution because he said the law would never be interpreted to allow same-sex marriages. Can we honestly say that courts, unmoored from its prior limits, will not someday overturn laws prohibiting the behaviors Hagedorn listed?

In the case of the latter, Hagedorn’s religious beliefs – private, unrelated to his service as a public official – are not so different from many other Christian religions. Shall we prohibit Roman Catholics, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod members, and even United Methodists from serving as judges? The Constitution prohibits religious tests for office, but now we have activists on the Left that are willing to impose such tests, just as Catholics were discriminated against in 19th century America.

It’s interesting to note that Jordahl and Johnson actually go further than the Realtors do in their statement, “The real estate related issues that served as the basis for our endorsement have been overshadowed by other, non-real estate related issues – issues with which we do not want to be associated and that directly conflict with the principles of our organization and the values of our members.”

Jordahl and Johnson describe the Realtors’ opinion of Hagedorn’s beliefs as, “intolerant and out of the mainstream of public opinion.” Shakespeare would have defined their statement as “the most unkindest cut of all” in this debate. Et tu, J & J? So much for, “No one, including the WRA, is disputing Judge Hagedorn’s right to his beliefs.”

Either way, it’s clear that the Realtors are saying that the difference of opinion is their hostility to what Hagedorn believes – and not any fear that his beliefs will hurt the interests of the Realtors.

Which leads us to an interesting point. The Realtors claim that their issues were “overshadowed by other, non-real estate related issues.” In my lifetime, I cannot recall a Wisconsin Supreme Court election, or any statewide election, where the issues of concern to the Realtors were not overshadowed by other issues. I doubt that Joanne Kloppenburg and former Justice David Prosser spent one moment debating proper licensing for discount real estate brokers.

What has caused the Realtors to make endorsements in the past has not changed with the controversies concerning Hagedorn’s religious beliefs. It is in the shelter of the rule of law, rather than in the winds of a capricious legislating judiciary, that property rights are protected. Matters of taxation and land regulation are best left in the hands of the legislature, not judges. If Hagedorn loses, we’re that much closer – and the Realtors are that much closer – to rule by an activist leftwing judiciary. Is that really what the members of the WRA want?

What’s more, if we start choosing which rights were going to defend, and we fail to defend an individual’s right to their religious beliefs – to one’s own conscience – then what right does the WRA hold dear that will be able to stand against the omnipotent state without the rule of law to protect it?

And then there’s the hypocrisy. The Realtors suddenly have principles and values? But when Rep. Roger Rivard (R-Rice Lake) said in 2012, “some girls rape easy,” the Realtors’ endorsement was not withdrawn? Now they’re having trouble sleeping at night, but back then the Realtors had no issue with what Rivard said?

Finally, let’s return to the odd decision by Jordahl and Johnson to submit the op-ed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. If their goal was to somehow influence Wisconsin’s conservatives to cease their hostility towards the WRA, the least influential place for the op-ed would be on the pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As Jordahl and Johnson are well aware personally, the newspaper is implacably hostile to conservatives, and conservatives understand that hostility well.

Therefore, we’re forced to conclude that Jordahl and Johnson were trying instead to impress a different audience. Perhaps the leadership of the WRA, perhaps the same newspaper editors that directed every news article and editorial critical of Johnson and Jordahl during the John Doe probes.

We should have no regrets for defending Jordahl, Johnson, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, and everyone else targeted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm and the Government Accountability Board during the John Doe probes. Standing up for their First Amendment rights was a matter of principle.

It’s a pity that Jordahl and Johnson are missing the opportunity to take their turn to stand up for the principles of the First Amendment by defending Hagedorn.