Order in the Court

“If the judicial ermine and gown in Wisconsin shall drop from other shoulders hereafter as pure and unsullied as from his, we shall have no cause to feel ashamed.”

Take a trip through the Wisconsin Court System website highlighting this state’s supreme court justices and you come across quotes like the one above from Justice Samuel Crawford at the 1859 memorial service for Wisconsin’s first-ever elected Chief Justice Edward V. Whiton.

Of Justice Crawford himself, who served just two years on the high court, from 1853-55, former Mineral Point Mayor Calvert Spensley said:

“Judge Crawford was a most genial and accomplished gentleman, chivalrous in his disposition, and of the strictest honor and integrity. He had a heart full of warm sympathies and generous impulses, and as a man and citizen was greatly beloved.”

Wisconsin's Supreme Court

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court

After hearing of yet another round of tumult on Wisconsin’s current Supreme Court, it’s worth wondering how the current justices will be remembered. Their legacy, if written today by this journalist of 25 years and every other in the state, would most certainly include phraseology similar to this: (Fill-in-the-blank) served on the state’s highest court at a time when personalities clashed and accusations of violence, partisanship and dishonesty prevailed.

The latest story comes from a memo Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote to the state’s Judicial Commission investigating her accusation that her fellow Justice David Prosser put his hands around her neck and choked her on June 13, 2011. It’s an accusation Prosser denies. In her memo, Bradley said the event was not an isolated incident, describing an ongoing threat before that event ever allegedly happened in which she reportedly obtained extra security to protect her from her colleague and said current conditions on the court are miserable.

That accusation was refuted by Justice Patience Roggensack, who is up for re-election to the court next week. She told The Wisconsin State Journal of the current court’s mood, “nobody’s edgy or yelling or doing anything inappropriately. … On a daily basis, we’re doing fine.”

Bradley’s memo reads like a scene from Law and Order and not a real-life Supreme Court, tasked with serving as a co-equal branch of government with the Legislature and the Governor from the birth of this state in 1848. Maybe in a day where we’re used to watching antagonistic and aggressive people called judges (e.g. Judge Judy, Simon Cowell, or Howard Stern), this back-and-forth soap opera of a tale doesn’t stun people any more.

It apparently has not stunned the current justices, any of them, to change their behavior. Our message to our three kids, whenever squabbles inevitably arise, is that they need to work it out, find an equitable way to co-exist. If three kids age five and under can figure that out, albeit they¬† need help sometimes, can’t seven of the most intelligent Wisconsin residents? Are they not collectively and individually embarrassed about their public image?

Former Justice Janine Geske once described the high court as being “like bringing all the new in-laws together at Thanksgiving, giving them a couple glasses of wine maybe, and then discussing the most controversial issues you can think of, and see if you can get an agreement by the end of dinner.”

No one’s discounting the heady issues and stressful situations they face, but there used to be a time when Wisconsin’s supreme court justices were remembered less for their personal squabbles and more as Justice Mortimer M. Jackson was at his memorial service in 1891 by Silas Pinney:

“In all his social, personal, and official relations, Judge Jackson was eminently a polite, courtly, dignified gentleman of the old school; treating at all times his associates and acquaintances with the kindest and most respectful consideration.”

What’s the old saying, if you don’t learn from history, you’re bound to repeat it? Maybe in the case of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court that wouldn’t be a bad thing.