More from Wisconsin: Battling (and perhaps bullying?) Supreme Court Justices

The labor issues concerning Wisconsin’s public employees have been attracting national attention, but within the Badger State a notable battle also has been brewing between two of its Supreme Court justices.

The justices have been engaging in an ugly and now public feud, with one member of the court — Justice David Prosser — calling  “Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a ‘bitch’ behind closed doors and threaten[ing] to ‘destroy her’ more than a year ago when the court split over removing fellow Justice Michael Gableman from a criminal case as he faced an ethics allegation,” as reported here by Meg Jones of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Certainly incivility, and maybe bullying?

Jack Zemlicka of the Wisconsin Law Journal, a legal newspaper, examined the situation from a dispute resolution angle (link here). Here’s an observation that I contributed to the piece:

A bickering court’s final decision in a case should be a concern, given the stakes involved for the public in Supreme Court decisions, said David Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University in Massachusetts who has written extensively on conflict and incivility in the workplace.

“The implications are significant,” he said. “To a degree, personal conflict could enter into writing of majority, concurring or dissenting opinions.”

What didn’t make it into the article were my remarks on the differences between incivility and bullying. This clearly involves workplace incivility. However, while the thuggish and sexist nature of Prosser’s remarks toward Abrahamson is very disturbing, it’s not clear that the overall situation crosses the line into bullying (by either party), which typically involves abusive exploitation of power imbalances. (Abrahamson is the Chief Justice on the court, while Prosser is an Associate Justice.)

My sense is that this situation could’ve been eased by effective mediation, which would’ve allowed the parties to put their grievances on the table and hopefully work them out.

Labor implications

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Justices are elected, not appointed. Prosser, a conservative, is up for reelection this year, and the results very well could have consequences for any Supreme Court decisions concerning the status of the controversial legislation that strips most state employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Of course, if Prosser loses his seat, then presumably he will be able to hurl threats and epithets at Abrahamson only from afar.

The judicial election is on April 5. Once again, the eyes of the nation (at least those of legal eagles) are on Wisconsin. Stay tuned.

3 responses

  1. David, what about Prosser’s threat of “ruining her.” I really think that bullying is not always based on “positional power.” The power of a peer who is a bully may come from the protection of bullying behavior by the internal system or by another person of positional power.

    Did I miss something in your post?

    I have an unrelated question. When I post a comment, do I have to confirm my subscription every single time?

    Thanks, Mary

    • Mary, actually I did quote the threat to “destroy her” in 2nd paragraph of the post. The positional power issue is a very interesting one here. She’s the chief justice with 9 years left on her term, he’s an associate justice who is standing for reelection today. His threats seem to be the rants of a guy with a hair trigger temper. (Now he’s claiming publicly that he feels like the victim of a “drive by shooting” because of all the negative press he’s been getting.)

      I don’t know the answer to your question about comments. I was unaware that you had to do so. I’ll try to check it out, but it may be one of those things…..the “price” of being able to run a blog paying only minor charges!

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