Name-calling over Wisconsin law library exposes an ugly divide – Isthmus

A top Republican legislative aide called the women who make up the majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court “partisan, petty bitches” on X recently, after they renamed the state law library for Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer.

The comment, by Scott Kelly, state Sen. Van Wanggaard’s chief of staff, was an unfortunate reminder of the time former Justice David Prosser — whose name was removed from the library to the consternation of conservatives — used the B-word to describe former Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

Prosser, a former Republican Assembly speaker, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time that he was responding to “bullying and abuse of very, very long standing,” by women on the Court, and that both Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley “are masters at deliberately goading people into perhaps incautious statements.” 

In other words: The bitch made me do it.

Like a domestic abuser who blames his victim when he loses control, Prosser seemed to truly believe he was forced to behave the way he did by the women on the Court. 

This is the same former justice who reportedly put his hands around Walsh Bradley’s throat during an argument in 2011. Walsh Bradley, who has announced she will retire when her term is up in 2025, participated in the decision to take his name off the library.

The renaming controversy dredged up a lot of bad memories of the descent of a once highly esteemed state court into ugly, personal insults and an actual physical altercation. 

When conservatives on the Court decided to name the law library after Prosser, it was widely perceived as a deliberate snub of both Walsh Bradley and Abrahamson, a brilliant legal mind who was considered for a spot on the nation’s highest Court, and who spent her last years surrounded by blowhards like disgraced former Justice Michael Gableman, whose bombastic, sneering, know-nothing style marked a new low for the institution and our state.

It was during a heated argument in 2011 over whether to remove the ethically challenged Gableman from a case that Prosser called then-Chief Justice Abrahamson the B-word. 

Along with former Republican Scott Walker’s “divide and conquer” politics and his attack on teachers and other public employees with Act 10 — the law Prosser and Walsh Bradley were disagreeing about when he reportedly snapped and put his hands around her neck — the Gableman-era on the Court was a forerunner to the current Trump style of toxic politics.

Reasonable people can argue that insider battles over whose name goes on the law library are petty and partisan. Instead of trading snubs by placing and removing names on the library, it would be nice to see the justices engaged in serious, collegial debate about the law. But partisanship on the Court did not start with the election of Justice Janet Protasiewicz and the new liberal majority. 

The massive escalation of money pouring into state judicial races from political parties and outside groups, the loosening of ethics rules, closing the door on transparency, and justices refusing to recuse themselves from cases involving their own campaign donors were all hallmarks of the Walker era.

As part of that downward spiral, we got a political culture in which conservatives outraged by the actions of liberal female justices express themselves by using a term that is derogatory to all women. 

That’s not an accident. The raw power struggle on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, where more money poured into the last election than any other state court race in the nation, is in no small part a fight over women’s place in society.

Protasiewicz won her seat last year, and formed the new liberal majority, propelled by voter outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and rendering abortion suddenly unavailable in Wisconsin.

It’s fitting that the justices chose to rename the law library this year after Lavinia Goodell, the first woman licensed to practice law in the state and a strong proponent of women’s suffrage. In 1876 the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to allow her to argue a case before it because of her sex. She then helped write a state law that prohibited courts from denying women access to the bar. In 1879 the Court changed its position and one year later she argued and won her first Supreme Court case.

Abrahamson, who died in 2020, regarded Goodell as a “hero,” who “fought an epic battle for the right to practice before that state’s highest court.” A century after that battle was won, Abrahamson was sworn in as Wisconsin’s first woman Supreme Court justice and became the state’s longest serving chief justice. Both women’s lives mark slow, steady progress for women and for society. The battles they fought are still going on. 

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