Attorney general opponents plead cases at law school

Casual discussion and occasional friendly fire replaced heated argument in Thursday’s debate between current Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen (R.-Wis.) and opponent Scott Hassett (D.-Wis.).

Mike Gousha, distinguished fellow in law and public policy at the Law School, mediated the latest installment of Gousha’s “On the Issues” series examining matters of public policy. Beforehand, he advised the candidates on debate etiquette.

“This is not a rigid debate, it’s more like a conversation,” he said.

Throughout the debate, both candidates in November’s election tried to keep it as “conversational” as possible, but personal and pressing issues came to the surface.

Hassett said the U.S. Department of Justice — dedicated to enforcing the law and defending the interests of the United States by the law —has “lost its sense of mission.” He also criticized Van Hollen for not being a more proactive attorney general with regard to stem cell research.

“The attorney general needs to recognize the influence he has,” Hassett said. “There are a lot of issues that he could make a difference on.”

Van Hollen replied he must act accordingly with the highest law of the land.

“I don’t pick and choose what to be involved in — I have to defend the highest law,” he said. “The government made up their mind to say no to stem cell research, and I support what they do.”

Van Hollen noted Hassett does not have an active law license. His license was placed on inactive status when he began serving as secretary of the State Department of Natural Resources in 2004.

In 2009, an amendment passed that required anyone of inactive status of two or more years to complete double the amount of credits (60 total instead of 30) to regain activity. However, the Wisconsin State Board of Bar Examiners recently allowed Hassett to continue practicing law without the required education.

“Being a prosecutor matters a tremendous amount,” Van Hollen said. “He has never prosecuted a single case … (the position of) attorney general is not a training ground.”

Hassett disagreed, saying he is qualified for the role of attorney general and knows what a good prosecution is.

“I’m happy to run on my record of 22 years in litigation,” Hassett said. “I want to be the people’s lawyer … attorney general is more than being the ‘Top Cop.’”

The candidates also disagreed on the issue of illegal immigration.

Van Hollen said the state of Wisconsin has immigration authority and can therefore make a difference on its own.

“I am the first attorney general in Wisconsin to take action against illegal criminal aliens,” Van Hollen said. “By partnering with local law enforcement, we’ve removed 350 since the beginning of my term.”

Hassett disagreed that illegal immigration is a state level issue.

“This issue cries out for federal action,” Hassett said. “The state shouldn’t be involved in routine procedures such as these.”

Looking past their differences, the candidates agreed on matters including Internet protection from sexual predators, public safety, and environmental issues such as Asian carp in Lake Michigan. The two candidates agreed that public safety is the state’s number one priority.