You know there's serious trouble when your state's Supreme Court resembles a trashy daytime talk show.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley has accused Justice David Prosser of putting her in a "chokehold" during an argument in her chambers. The incident occurred in the lead-up to the release of the court's controversial decision on the collective bargaining bill on June 13. Other unnamed sources who witnessed the altercation claim that Bradley came at Prosser with "fists raised" and that Prosser's hands only came into contact with her neck when he tried to defend himself.
Earlier this year news broke that Prosser had, in a fit of pique, called Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a "total bitch" and threatened to "destroy" her. That incident, admitted to by Prosser, occurred last year when the court was weighing whether or not to remove newly minted Justice Michael Gableman from a criminal case based on disparaging remarks he and his campaign had made about criminal defense attorneys.
The discord among justices goes further back, though, traceable even to 1999, when four of Abrahamson's fellow justices came out in support of her opponent in the race for her spot on the bench. Even her supporters concede that, while the chief justice is a brilliant legal mind, she's not exactly a "peacemaker" behind the scenes.
According to former clerks at the court who spoke with Talking Points Memo, the rancor has increased greatly in the last decade. It's gotten to the point, they say, that when the justices go into closed-door conference sessions, you can hear the shouting from outside.
The blame doesn't lie on the shoulders of any one justice, of course. The current court is more politically divided than perhaps at any time in its history, the result of runaway spending and influence on campaigns by partisan organizations looking to sway the court's decisions in their favor.
Regardless of whether or not justices actually allow campaign contributions to influence their decision-making process, those millions of dollars make the perception of bias unavoidable. And that's why public confidence in the court is now shaky at best.
How are we to trust that the justices are making the most constitutionally sound rulings when there are physical altercations between them during deliberations over controversial cases?
I'm usually in favor of the people's right to democratically elect their representatives in government. When it comes to justices of the Supreme Court, however, I'd argue that it's the worst possible idea.
Senators, representatives, alders and presidents are like attorneys for their constituents. We elect people who we think will best be able to represent and fight for our interests. And while good politicians will act more as statesmen - going to bat for the Greater Good - they're still going to be biased toward the good of their own districts and donors (and, in the case of less noble politicians, toward their own careers).
Justices, on the other hand, should remain as impartial as humanly possible, steeped in legal precedent and constitutional scholarship. Judges shouldn't have to campaign for the position - the qualified ones should be recommended by an educated committee to the electorate and/or governor.
Oh, Lord, you're likely thinking, don't you suggest allowing Gov. Walker to have the final say in picking our Supreme Court justices. I'm not. But there must be a middle road - a system that significantly reduces the amount of outside spending and influence on the people who sit on the bench without putting too much power into the hands of too few.
I looked at some of the systems in place in states that don't hold public elections for their justices. Some modified version of the Missouri and Tennessee plans, for instance, might make the most sense.
In those plans, a selection committee is created to research and interview potential justices for an open seat on the court. The committee then compiles a list of recommended candidates and sends it to the governor for the final decision. One year into the first term, the winner must stand for a statewide retention election, giving the public the final check on the decision.
The trick would be in making sure the committee was composed of a diverse sampling of knowledgeable individuals - people who have a deep understanding of how the judicial branch of our government is supposed to function and who represent both majority and minority populations and opinions. The committee could be chosen from within and by organizations like the State Bar Association, law schools, community service groups and the Legislature.
We can't go on the way things are now, that much is certain. The current makeup of the court is too divisive, too polluted with partisan politics (or even just the perception thereof) to be effective. Certainly, the justices are fast losing the trust of the people of Wisconsin.
When six of seven sitting justices are eyewitnesses to an alleged violent altercation, and their accounts of what happen appear to diverge wildly - either because of their political leanings or some personal grudge - both the court and the state are in serious trouble.u
Emily Mills is a local writer and musician. She blogs at TheDailyPage.com.