What was Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen thinking when he announced that he would not defend the state's decision to allow unmarried couples to register as domestic partners and enjoy some of the civil benefits accorded to families in any civil society?
The attorney general certainly was not thinking about the state constitution or the rule of law. As state Rep. Mark Pocan, the Madison Democrat who as a gay man in a committed relationship is one of the many who could bear the consequences of Van Hollen's move, says: "When the domestic partnership registry is upheld, Van Hollen will have to explain to the people of Wisconsin why he shirked his duties and stuck them with the bill. The AG claimed in his statement that he is defending the constitution - in reality he is shredding the constitution for political purposes. I am very disappointed in the person who should be acting as the state's top attorney, not the state's biggest politician."
Who can Pocan find to back up his position?
Er, J.B. Van Hollen.
When he was running for attorney general in 2006, Van Hollen rejected the notion that he would play to the extreme right when making decisions about gay rights. During that race, his campaign put out an assessment from the candidate that explained: "The legislature or the governing body of a political subdivision or local government is not precluded from authorizing or requiring that a right or benefit traditionally associated with marriage be extended to two or more unmarried individuals; for example, family health insurance benefits, certain probate rights, or the ability to file joint tax returns."
That was a sound statement that put Van Hollen clearly on the side of mainstream legal opinion - as expressed by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council, among others - that domestic partnership benefits could be extended even if a state constitutional amendment barred same-sex marriage and civil unions.
So why has Van Hollen rejected the moderate, mainstream position he took when seeking the votes of Wisconsinites?
What's on the attorney general's mind?
The best bet is that, just as when he tried to meddle with the 2008 election in order to deny the franchise to voters who were likely to back Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain, Van Hollen is thinking about how best to position himself for his next political race.
No attorney general in the history of Wisconsin has been as aggressive as Van Hollen when it comes to abusing the powers of the state Department of Justice for political purposes.
And Van Hollen's latest decision to go against the rule of law, and his own past commitments, is just another illustration of his agenda-driven "service."
Van Hollen is currently considering a run for the Republican nomination for governor. If he enters the competition, he will face a primary against a favorite of social conservatives: former Congressman Mark Neumann. How can Van Hollen, who is not as well known in anti-abortion and anti-gay-rights circles as Neumann, up the ante? By taking a high-profile stand against domestic partner benefits, of course.
And when there is a political opportunity to be had, Van Hollen grabs it - even if it means damning the law and rejecting his own positions.
Crudely self-serving and rigidly partisan, J.B. Van Hollen has run the state Department of Justice as a personal fiefdom, where logic and the law are dismissed.
His actions recall no one as much as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who played her position for everything she could get out of it and then quit to pursue new projects.
That style may play well with the worst elements in the Grand Old Party, but it insults the best traditions of mainstream, moderate and responsible Republicanism in Wisconsin. Worse yet, it insults the voters, the law and the tradition of public service that Wisconsinites of all partisan and ideological persuasions have historically cherished.