MADISON, Wis. — Lisa Neubauer, the chief judge on the state appeals court, announced Thursday she is running for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a bid to replace retiring liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson next year.
Neubauer, who was appointed to the appeals court in 2007 by Abrahamson's friend and former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, is the first of what could be a large field of candidates to join the race for the open seat.
Neubauer, who turns 61 next week, tried to establish herself as the preferred choice early, announcing that more than 150 current and former Wisconsin judges, including 18 from the court of appeals where she serves, have already endorsed her.
She is likely to generate support from Democrats — her campaign is being run by the same team that helped get liberal-backed Judge Rebecca Dallet elected this year.
Neubauer, in an interview, rejected the notion that she is the Democratic candidate.
"It would be unfortunate to give me that label rather than look at my record on the court of appeals," she said. "My partisan views, or anybody's partisan views, are not relevant to my decision making."
Neubauer declined to take a position on President Donald Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, refused to name a state Supreme Court justice she admires, and asked that political parties and partisan-aligned outside groups stay out of the race.
Unlike other recent candidates for the Supreme Court, she declined to criticize how it's operated in recent years, saying she has a "great relationship" with the justices.
However, she did say she supports revisiting the court's rule on when justices must step aside in cases. That's been a cause that liberals have been pushing for years, arguing that justices should not remain on cases that involve substantial political donors. Neubauer said the public needs to have confidence that there is no appearance of bias in the courts.
"I think my philosophy is very clear," she said. "Our courts need to be fair, impartial and independent. ... Every person that comes before our courts deserves to be heard. Every person before the court deserves a level playing field. Every person who comes before our court deserves a fair shake."
At least one other Democrat, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, is considering joining the race, along with two conservatives. They are Brian Hagedorn, an appeals court judge who also worked as Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attorney, and Maria Lazar, a Waukesha County judge who previously worked as an assistant attorney general for Republican attorneys general J.B. Van Hollen and Brad Schimel.
Lazar said she is weighing her options and hasn't made a decision. Hagedorn and Happ haven't returned messages seeking comment.
The court is officially nonpartisan, but judicial races have been expensive partisan battles for more than a decade.
Dallet will join the court in August, reducing the conservative majority from 5-2 to 4-3, and liberals are keen to hold on to Abrahamson's seat in the April election.
Neubauer was elected to the appeals court in 2008 and re-elected in 2014. She has served as chief judge since 2015. Prior to joining the bench, she spent almost 20 years as an attorney in private practice. She also worked as a law clerk for Barbara Crabb, who at the time was chief judge of the U.S. District Court for western Wisconsin.
She lives in Racine and one of her children, Greta Neubauer, serves in the Legislature as a Democratic state representative for Racine.
Abrahamson, 84, served a record 19 years as chief justice, is the longest-serving justice in state history and the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She has been dealing with an undisclosed illness in recent months and missed many court hearings and meetings leading up to her announcement that she would not seek re-election.