Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman was right in more ways than he knew when he said the court is “the outlier, and to pretend otherwise is simply in defiance of the facts.”
He was speaking specifically about the court’s status as the only one — or maybe only one of three — to hold certain administrative meetings in public.
But it also seems like a fair description of a state high court whose internal discord and flat-out childishness might also make it unique among the 50 states.
Technically, the last item considered at the court’s Wednesday meeting was about whether the court should approve Gableman’s proposal to end its 22-year practice of holding public meetings (like Wednesday’s) to deliberate rules pertaining to the state court system.
In reality, give it a jeering audience, and some of it felt more like an episode of the “Maury“ show.
“Shame on all of you,” says Justice Ann Walsh Bradley at one point.
“Shame on you, Ann,” Gableman shoots back.
“Where did you get those?” Bradley asks later, referring to some papers Gableman has. “Those are all internal, private.”
“Oh, they’re private? Ms. Sunshine? Let’s open it to the public? Sunshine?” says Gableman. “Don’t grab papers from me. ... Good heavens, Ann. Have you lost leave? My God, what is wrong with you?”
“You’re better than this, Mike,” says Bradley.
“Unfortunately, I’ve become all too accustomed to how you operate, Ann,” says Gableman, “and even for you this is beyond the pale.”
Amid all this, Justice Daniel Kelly opines: “I think we’re entirely capable of conducting our business as adults and professionals.” Perhaps he forgot this is the same court that six years ago was roiled by accusations that one justice tried to physically assault another.
There wasn’t much talk Wednesday about the benefits of closing rules meetings — you know, like for the public that pays the justices’ salaries and is subject to their rulings. Although that didn’t stop the court from closing them on one of its usual partisan votes: 5-2 in favor, with the conservative justices in the majority.
Steve Levine, a former president of the Wisconsin State Bar who proposed opening the meetings back in the 1990s, said closing the meetings is “a big blow to good government in Wisconsin.” If it had been the policy in April, the public would know very little about the court’s rejection of a proposal to require justices and judges to recuse themselves from cases involving parties that had spent lots of money to elect them, he said.
I don’t know whether closing rules meetings is a good idea for state high courts in general.
Wisconsin’s high court in particular, though, strikes me as a public institution more in need than most of the kind of antiseptic sunshine provides.
Wrapping up Wednesday’s meeting, Chief Justice Patience Roggensack said: “I think everybody’s got their oar in the water and we’re not making progress in any way that’s judicial.”
I didn’t get the bit about the oar in the water until I discovered that having only one oar in the water is a metaphor for being somewhat unhinged.
Turns out Roggensack was right, and knew it. Which I guess is progress.