Fail To The Chief
Despite an embarrassing rush to judgment in the media, there are significant questions as to who instigated the recent scuffle between State Supreme Court Justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley. Regardless, it's not a moment that either of the principals should be proud of.
What shouldn't be in dispute though is that many of the long standing problems at the Court lie solely at the feet of the Chief Justice, Shirley Abrahamson.
Yesterday, former Supreme Court Justice William Callow told our John Mercure publicly what other Justices have said privately. Namely, Shirley Abrahamson is the problem - and has been for years.
In Wisconsin, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is not chosen by the other Justices. Rather, the longest serving Justice is automatically designated as "Chief". Historically, the "Chief Justice" (who is responsible for supervising the administrative operation of the Wisconsin court system) has been viewed as sort of a "first among equals". Under Abrahamson, the Chief Justice's role has essentially been to be "the first and only".
Activist orientation aside, Abrahamson is an extremely bright jurist. At the same time, significant questions about her temperament date back to the 80s when reports suggested she regularly mocked Justices with whom she did not agree. She is legendary for provocative and occasionally mean-spirited dissents. Since she inherited the role of Chief Justice in 1996 - and particularly since 2004, relations among the Justices seem to have gotten much worse.
A good Chief Justice works for consensus and serves to protect the institution of the Court. In contrast, many will say that Abrahamson works to centralize her power and both demean and destroy those who she perceives to be her enemies. If it turns out that Abrahamson is the source of the leak about the Prosser/Walsh incident, you have to wonder whether she has gone completely around the bend.
The law is an art not a science. Heated philosophical disagreements among individual judges are not unusual. However, the toxic environment on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is unprecedented!
And make no mistake. The main contributor to that toxic environment has been the very person who should have been serving as the peacemaker, Shirley Abrahamson. More unfortunately, that toxic environment will undoubtedly continue until such a time as Abrahamson steps down from her role as Chief Justice.
Until that point, chalk this one up to a "Fail to the Chief".