Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Lady MacBeth of the Supreme Court

Pat Roggensack has shamed herself and the high court in the ugly way she’s handled her elevation to chief justice.

By - May 7th, 2015 10:56 am
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Patience Roggensack

Patience Roggensack

There was something unseemly about Supreme Court Justice Patience (Pat) Roggensack contacting state legislators and urging them to support a constitutional amendment that would allow members of the court to elect the chief justice. Court watchers assumed such a vote would result in Roggensack’s selection, so her lobbying looked Shakespearean, the younger justice looking to kill the queen.

It also contrasted with Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who served based on having the longest tenure on the court and now stood to be displaced, yet desisted from lobbying, saying: “My position is that it is important not to politicize the court.”

Still, the constitutional change Roggensack and Republicans supported was easily defended as a more democratic way to run the court, which left Roggensack sitting on high ground. And after the constitutional referendum passed and Abrahamson filed suit in federal court to fight the change, it was Shirley who took a beating, as a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial and other media commentators criticized her for not accepting the will of the voters. All Roggensack had to do was wait for a likely federal court decision in her favor, and watch Queen Abrahamson twist in the wind.

But there is little patience in Roggensack, it appears, and she couldn’t wait to stick it to Shirley. The court’s four conservative judges, including Roggensack, took a vote just hours after state election officials certified the results of the spring election, with Roggensack casting the deciding vote to make her the new chief justice.

Moderate conservative Justice Patrick Crooks urged the four justices to hold off a vote as the federal judge handling Abrahamson’s lawsuit suggested they should do. But they declined.

Justice David Prosser, one of the four conservatives who voted for Roggensack, suggested the change in titles should come on August 1, when the court’s new term begins, but Roggensack immediately issued a statement calling herself the chief justice. There was no reason for such haste, as the the court is not even scheduled to meet again until early June.

Former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, a moderate who had been appointed to the court by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, questions Roggensack’s judgment. “I keep hoping that there will be some sense of peace and process at the court,” she tells me. Rather than a hasty email vote to choose Roggensack, Geske expected some sense of public ceremony: “I expected the justices would meet and discuss a process to select a chief justice. That discussion should have been in public outlining what the position entails and what the court was hoping that person would accomplish. I also was quite shocked that the group that voted (for chief justice) did not wait at least until May 15 when they are next in federal court.”

As all this went on, Abrahamson simply held her fire and made no statements to the press, while her attorney told the federal judge she still properly holds the office of chief justice. This prompted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to do a story with the droll headline, “Will the real chief justice please stand.”

Roggensack could have simply contacted the paper and let them know she was abiding by the will of the people and hoped her colleague would accept this democratic outcome. Instead, the obviously miffed justice rushed to talk on air with incendiary radio host Charlie Sykes and quickly attacked both Abrahamson and the Journal Sentinel!

“I intend to work with people on a consensus basis, rather than a dictatorial basis,” Roggensack told Sykes, in an obvious dig at Abrahamson. Just one week earlier, Roggensack said her key task as chief justice was “to begin repairing damage that has been done to the reputation of the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” and so she does this by sullying her fellow justice, and letting the world know the bickering on the court is not about to stop.

Not finished, Roggensack dumped on the Journal Sentinel for its story, saying “That is poking fun at the Wisconsin Supreme Court, trying to make a joke at our highest judicial institution. And you know that does a disservice to our state.”

What in the world was Roggensack thinking? Sykes looks for every opportunity to bash the Journal Sentinel as the supposedly liberal “dead tree edition” and here she was playing along with that game. The JS may not have quite the clout it once did, but it’s still the biggest newspaper in the state, and it’s crazy to pick a fight with it.

The newspaper, in its account, noted that Roggensack was making her announcement on a talk show “which promotes Republican campaigns and conservative causes.” This was the woman announcing herself as the highest judicial officer in the state, and doing it through a show that is devoted to bashing half or more of the politicians and voters of the state. As any media advisor would have advised her, if she wanted to slap the newspaper, then do an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Associated Press or Wisconsin Public Radio, all of whom would have jumped to give her coverage, and then wrap yourself in the will of the people and don’t even mention the Journal Sentinel.

Instead, the message sent by Roggensack is that she is only comfortable speaking to a conservative zealot and only cares about voters on the far right side of the spectrum. “For Roggensack to choose a very partisan radio show to make her announcement about being a consensus builder is really a bad first step to rebuilding the court’s reputation,” Geske says.

Roggensack’s decision to get in bed with Sykes looks all the worse given the high-profile case the court is being asked to adjudicate. As I’ve written, Roggensack and the three conservative judges who support her have declined to recuse themselves from deciding whether the John Doe investigation should be shut down, despite the fact the two parties to the case, the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, are parties to the case who could potentially face criminal charges. These two groups together spent $7.6 million to help elect these four justices, providing 76 percent of the support for Prosser, 69 percent of support for Justice Michael Gableman, 59 percent of the spending for Justice Annette Ziegler and 48 percent for Roggensack.

If these justices vote to kill the Doe, the clear message will be that “justice” was purchased for $7.6 million. That message will resonate all the louder now that Roggensack has let the entire state know she is only comfortable discussing court affairs with a talk show host who had repeatedly assailed the John Doe investigators as police-state thugs conducing a “a partisan witch hunt.”

Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Roggensack was sitting pretty. She had the majority of the people behind her. She could have made a show of conducting the vote for the new chief justice as an exercise in democracy, could had announced she was reaching out to all people, all parties, and all members of the justice system in Wisconsin. And she could have left Abrahamson looking like a poor loser, leaving voters to conclude that Shirley was indeed the cause of discord on the court.

Instead, Roggensack has confirmed the worst possible view of the court and its ruling conservatives, a view that’s likely be cemented after its decision on the John Doe. Take it from Lincoln Caplan, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School and the author of five books about the law, who wrote this in a recent New Yorker feature story:

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court should be seen as above the fray, beyond price, and wholly independent. Instead, contrary to the ideal that (U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice) John Roberts described in the Florida case, all of the Wisconsin justices look a lot like politicians, in particular the conservatives, who came to the bench with the support of powerful and aggressive political groups. Those justices’ integrity is compromised, as plainly as if they had personally solicited every dollar that helped elect them—and that helped drag the standing of their court so low.”

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

23 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Lady MacBeth of the Supreme Court”

  1. PMD says:

    All of the acrimony on the state’s highest court is really disheartening, and it doesn’t seem like any of the justices has clean hands. They gripe about the court’s perception but take those gripes directly to partisan media. I wonder if the problems exist in other states. In our age of Super PACs and “corporations are people,” surely other state supreme courts have been hampered by hyper-partisanship. Iowa immediately comes to mind, with the justices being voted out after the gay marriage ruling.

  2. Dave says:

    It’s time to put the blame where is ultimately deserved: on the stupid, ignorant, greedy electorate that voted for these clowns in the first place. We have a kangaroo WMC court, not a supreme court. We have a Governor who turned down a billion dollars for a much needed infrastructure investment. We have a legislature that signed off on billions of dollars in tax cuts while reducing spending on education who then expected tax revenues to magically rise as the trickle down everyone’s been waiting for for the last 30 years finally took hold. The people of this state get what they deserve. Now, if only my house wasn’t under water again as I watch the cowardly City of Milwaukee employees around me flee for the ‘burbs so they can have their cake and eat it too, I’d jump off of this sinking ship before it hits bottom.

  3. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    The low-class and corrupt behavior of Roggen-hack and the rest of the WMC 4 are why recalls were invented. As the in-depth New Yorker article has revealed, these people are a national disgrace.

    Do we really think that the 10% of the state’s voting population that backed the “screw Shirley” amendment voted for this type of immediate power-grab and arrogance?

  4. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I have known most of the lst 40 years of Justices and they all, with exception of Bradley, have hated Shirley. Look at difference with Ginsburg whose buddy is Scalia and Shirley. There is reason she is total “-itch”.

  5. PMD says:

    Says the man who never stops moaning about “white liberal racists.” You’re a total peach WCD.

  6. WIG says:

    Then, there’s that ugly little rumor that Sen. Tom Tiffany was seen speaking with a Supreme Court Justice…just as the bill he sponsored with respect to this fiasco…was winding its way through the legislature. WisEye even captured Tiffany refusing to answer Sen. Erpenbach’s question as to whether or not Tiffany spoke with a Supreme Court Justice about this matter. Tiffany would not answer the question. Someone apparently saw the conversation.

  7. AG says:

    I think it’s pretty clear the ridiculousness abounds on all sides. I guess this means Dave, Jake, and WCD are all right?? Or all wrong… ? or…? I give up.

    Either way, when the pendulum eventually swings back to the left in this state, all these power plays with the court system and other parts of state government will only serve the new powers that be anyway. Things always have a way of balancing out.

  8. PMD says:

    And when that happens AG the left will suddenly love the new way of choosing the chief justice and conveniently forget about how much they once hated it.

  9. DGR says:

    As a former Wisconsinite and as a person who regularly worked with the Court and other legal entities, the Court basically appeared to work and function pretty well right up until the last four justices elected to serve on the Bench. Don’t know exactly why that is except that a certain current Justice seems to be awfully jealous of the sitting Chief Justice and has always appeared to have been so – to that extent, Abrahamson does have more brain power than most of them put together and is well liked around the state – that may be hard for some of them to take which is why they have to join forces so much. I just wish they would all grow up and act like adults – its a disgrace to go from one of the most respect Courts in the country to the laughingstock!

  10. Dave says:

    Unfortunatly, it’s going to be a long long time before the left retakes this state and undoes the damage the right has done in just a few short years. The electorate picked a real bad time to have a brain fart in 2010 which empowered the extremists to redistrict as they saw fit.

  11. james says:

    Yikes! Wisconsin is starting to look just like Flor-i-DUH!!!

  12. tim haering says:

    They’re all a buncha old farts that need to go. We all know they’re only running on the youthful legs of clerks and staff. MN got it right — mandatory retirement at 70.

  13. ACR says:

    I can’t get past the first sentence. It is “unseemly” for a Wisconsin resident to contact state legislators regarding an issue of public policy? It seems to me that this is fully protected under the 1st Amendment’s Freedom of Speech *and* Right to Petition for Redress of Grievances. IS there a school of thought that the Constitution applies less robustly for elected officials? There seems to be a burgeoning antipathy for the 1st Amendment in Wisconsin. That is not a good thing for anyone.

  14. PMD says:

    It makes no difference that in this instance the Wisconsin resident is a member of the state supreme court?

  15. Hereiam says:

    @ACR the 1st amendment protects against government prohibition of speech. It does not protect an individual against private action. And it certainly doesn’t protect you against other people realizing you’ve said something dumb.

    “Unseemly” is the perfect term to describe these calls. The author didn’t use the term “illegal” (because such a law would violate the 1st amendment) or even the term “immoral.” He used the term unseemly,which in this context means the speech is beneath the dignity of the speaker. A Wisconsin supreme court justice lobbying for a constitutional change that will personally benefit herself is firmly within the definition of the word unseemly.

    Justice Roggensack should be ashamed of her actions.

  16. David Nelson says:

    Hereiam hits the nail on the head.

  17. David Blaska says:

    Suing the Supreme court because the voters decided to choose their chief justice in a different way? No, that’s not “unbecoming.”

  18. Sue says:

    Why are you comparing Justice Roggensack with Lady MacBeth? Lady MacBeth was eventually done in by the subconscious realization of her own guilt. She actually, at some level, understood that what she had done was wrong. This is Wisconsin in 2015, the four chosen ones can openly celebrate their exclusive status by everything from emailed votes to recusal immunity.

  19. Terry Ott says:

    Seldom will we see a more concise and accurate statement than that by Hereiam. So there your are.

    I had no reason to dislike Pat Roggensack until a minute ago. Now I do. What a shame.

  20. TF says:

    Sometimes it’s just sad to see what’s happened to our state. We once had the Wisconsin Idea; now, we don’t even know who our chief justice is.

  21. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I f you go to the heart of every problem that the SC has had the last 30 years they are about Shirley or her buddy. Interview the other Justices and find out.

  22. Gerald J. Braden says:

    Soooo much to do about nothing, especially when the projections are coming fast and furious to oppose or accomplish the will of the people. Chief Justice Abrahamson should be bright enough to understand that the people have voted that her tenure as chief judge is up and now it’s time to move on. Let’s call a spade a spade when realizing just how disordered this court was under her lack of leadership, especially, where she legislated rather than decided law. Case in point, the matter of charging paint mfgs. to be liable for lead content in old buildings, even though they did not make the product. She single handidly drove out a Wis. based company, who could not afford to fight this absurd restriction and ruling. You liberal mind sets are destroying this state and again proving that you will stop at no means to get what you believe is yours, esp. when the former chief is sueing the state for what she believes is hers ? Really ? It’s time to move on Shirley. You have lost your way, your court and your mind, and may I add the confidence of the good citizens of this state. Shame, Shame, Shame …on Shirley Abrahamson !

  23. Joey Tranchina says:

    The people of Wisconsin deserve what they get.
    You voted for these scum or worse you didn’t vote at all.
    That’s democracy.

    Looks like America is in for a terrible 21st century.

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