By Ryan Owens
MADISON — Men who beat and rape women should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and not be allowed to prey on them again. Certainly, government officials should not go out of their way to help the abusers.
But that’s precisely what Attorney General Josh Kaul is doing — he is demanding that the Wisconsin Supreme Court force a company to hire a man convicted of eight counts of sexual assault, strangulation, and battery.
In a fit of rage, Derrick Palmer threw his girlfriend to the floor, strangled and tried to suffocate her. And then raped her. On another day, he hit her in the nose with the palm of his hand so hard he turned her face black and blue. And in a different fit of rage, he strangled her, beat her with a belt, and raped her.
After spending two and a half years behind bars for his horrific crimes, Palmer applied to a company named Cree Lighting to be a Lighting Specialist. The job involved helping clients select lighting schemes. It sometimes required overnight travel with coworkers. It would require him to work with female customers and coworkers in areas of buildings without cameras, without supervision, and where it was so loud no one could hear a person scream.
So, when Cree found out about Palmer’s past crimes, and before it hired him, it rescinded his conditional offer of employment. The private company believed that putting its nearly 550 female employees at risk of his abuse was unsafe.
In response, Palmer filed a discrimination complaint with the state, asking it to require Cree to hire him and provide him backpay. The Equal Rights Division of the Department of Workforce Development ruled in Cree’s favor, as did a circuit court.
But our Attorney General sided with Palmer through every level of the judicial process. His arguments are dangerous.
Wisconsin law allows employers to refuse to hire felons if the circumstances of their felonies “substantially relate” to the job for which they apply. For example, a company legally can refuse to hire a person convicted of armed robbery for the position of a school bus driver because the previous crime showed a disregard for personal and property rights of others.
The law strikes a balance between protecting rehabilitated felons and protecting workers and companies from dangerous people. As the court put it, the law seeks to “provid[e] jobs for those who have been convicted of crime and at the same time not forcing employers to assume risks of repeat conduct by those whose conviction record show them to have the propensity to commit similar crimes…”
Applying this common sense standard, Cree argued that Palmer’s previous crimes substantially related to the job. And because there were many unsupervised places in the factory where women co-workers or clients might be alone with him, Cree believed it was not safe to hire him.
But Attorney General Kaul disagreed.
Kaul argues that sexual assaults in domestic settings don’t count. They’re not like work assault. The Attorney General’s legal argument is that Palmer was physically and sexually violent “only” to past domestic partners, not co-workers. His prior acts were simply “a romantic relationship that turned bad.” Therefore, employing Palmer would not “create an unreasonable risk that he would commit similar crimes in the employment setting.”
His position is frightening for women (and men) who have been assaulted in the past, makes it likely that they will be assaulted at work in the future, and is confusing to employers who might be held responsible for hiring such people.
But perhaps we should not be surprised. Kaul’s policies throughout his tenure in office have revealed a reckless disregard for safety. He has sided with those who want to defund the police. He has withdrawn the state crime lab from programs that give law enforcement the tools they need to enforce the law. He has overseen record crime rates. These policies are simply too radical for Wisconsin.
It’s time to stop putting our people at risk.
It’s time for an Attorney General who fights for victims.
Ryan J. Owens is an attorney, a constitutional conservative, a professor, and the former director of the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a Republican candidate for attorney general in Wisconsin.