Commentary

Wisconsin Supreme Court tilts on its axis at historic swearing-in

August 2, 2023 5:00 am
Justice Protasiewicz Investiture - left to right Justice Protasiewicz, Husband Greg Sell, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley | Examiner photo

Justice Protasiewicz Investiture – left to right Justice Protasiewicz, Husband Greg Sell, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley | Examiner photo

A giddy crowd filled two floors of the Capitol rotunda Tuesday, as the late afternoon sun lit up the gold capstones on marble pillars and the glittering glass mosaic of “Justice” — a classical portrait of a woman holding a set of scales — looked down serenely from her throne. Before Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz was sworn in, the crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance with gusto — “with liberty and justice for all!” 

After a long, bitter, and record-breakingly expensive state Supreme Court race, Protasiewicz takes her seat this week, tilting the bench on the state’s highest court to the left for the first time in 15 years. She arrives at a propitious moment, creating an all-female 4-3 liberal majority just as a case challenging Wisconsin’s 1849 felony abortion ban is likely to come before the court, as well as a potential challenge to the gerrymandered voting maps that have locked in disproportionate Republican power.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Jill Karofsky and Rebecca Dallet chat in the Capitol before new Justice Janet Protasiewicz is sworn in | Wisconsin Examiner photo
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Jill Karofsky and Rebecca Dallet chat in the Capitol before Justice Janet Protasiewicz is sworn in | Wisconsin Examiner photo

At the swearing-in, the three senior members of the new majority — Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky — gathered in a tight knot, talking among themselves, laughing and occasionally breaking free to wrap passing well-wishers in hugs.

As the series of women justices spoke from the podium — along with one former justice, Janine Geske — a different world seemed possible. One without the cult of Donald Trump or the elimination of abortion rights or increasingly emboldened bigotry as a permanent feature of national politics. What if Hillary Clinton had won? What if it were normal to see smart, tough, middle-aged women in charge? 

“What an awesome day for the state of Wisconsin!” Dallet declared in her introductory remarks.

“How wonderful,” Walsh Bradley agreed. “Let us rejoice and be glad.”  With the addition of Protasiewicz, it is now possible to “return this court to the national reputation that it once enjoyed,” Walsh Bradley told the cheering crowd.

It’s true that the right-wing takeover of the Wisconsin Supreme Court coincided with a general period of decline. Along with the loss of national standing there was a spike in the corrupting influence of money and a growing ethical laxness. And, at the same time, the Court sank into a swamp of overt racism and misogyny. Former Justice David Prosser was accused of putting his hands around Ann Walsh Bradley’s throat and trying to choke her (he was never charged, and claimed Walsh Bradley “sensationalized” the incident). Disgraced former Justice  Michael Gableman won a single term in a dirty, racist campaign against the accomplished Louis Butler, Wisconsin’s first Black justice. In his short time on the Court, the bombastic and dull-witted Gableman hounded brilliant Chief Justice Shirely Abrahamson, sneering and scoffing as he helped rip up the Court’s ethics rules and close its rulemaking meetings from public view. 

In some ways the decline of the Wisconsin Supreme Court foreshadowed the general decline of civility and democracy in the Trump era.

The crowd filled two levels of the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda during Justice Janet Protasiewicz's swearing in
The crowd at Justice Janet Protasiewicz’s swearing in, with Lady Justice overhead.

While all the speakers at Tuesday’s swearing-in, including Protasiewicz herself, emphasized the importance of a dispassionate and even-handed court, there is no question that Wisconsin’s Supreme Court races have become partisan contests by proxy, or that her election signals a major political shift that could have significant electoral consequences.

As state Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler put it in a phone interview Tuesday, “The rigging of our maps has been the fundamental, defining wound in our democracy since 2011.”

“For 12 years, Wisconsin has been on the brink of a permanent Republican takeover, even where there’s a united and furious electorate,” Wikler said. Protasiewicz’s victory, he added, was “a blow to the threat of MAGA domination.” 

“Wisconsin is a democracy desert. If we have a Supreme Court that actually believes in our constitution and our laws, it doesn’t have to be that way, and that’s a tremendous source of hope,” Wikler added.

Here’s to hope. And to Lady Justice.

Correction: Justice David Prosser was erroneously described as deceased in an earlier version of this column.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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