It seems that the United States gets all the best court room drama, both on television and in real life. Relationships between justices at the Wisconsin Supreme Court have deteriorated to the extent that Justice David Prosser exploded at Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson behind closed doors, calling her a “bitch” and threatening to “destroy” her. As one American legal blogger commented ‘That would be shocking language if it was bandied about in a courthouse in the Bronx, but it’s just another day of state politics in Wisconsin.’

The conflict taking place in Wisconsin stems from the election to the court of Justice Gableman, after a 2008 ad campaign in which it is alleged that he misrepresented his opponent Louis Butler. An ad in the campaign featured Butler, the state’s first African American justice, next to the face of a black rapist he represented years earlier as a public defender. The ad said Butler found a “loophole” and the man went on to rape again. In reality Butler had won the man a new trial from the appeals court based on a procedural error, but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court. The man served his full prison term before being released and committing another offense. Once elected, Gabelman was accused of violating the judicial codes of conduct. The case went to the Supreme Court, Gabelman recused himself, and the court split 3 -3 and issued two different decisions.

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and two others (seen as the Court’s liberal bloc) said Gableman knowingly made a false statement suggesting his opponent helped free a sex offender who went on to rape again. Three justices seen as Gableman’s conservative colleagues said the ad was distasteful, but the words themselves were “objectively true.”

It now appears that during the trial the justices exchanged angry emails and had a series of confrontational meetings. What has been particularly interesting is the reaction of the justices involved in the story. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal reported that:

“Prosser acknowledged the incident recently and said he thought it was becoming public now in an attempt to hurt him politically. Prosser faces Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg in the April 5 election. He said the outburst came after Abrahamson took steps to undermine him politically and to embarrass him and other court conservatives. “In the context of this, I said, ‘You are a total bitch,’?” Prosser said. “I probably overreacted, but I think it was entirely warranted.?.?.?.?  They (Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley) are masters at deliberately goading people into perhaps incautious statements. This is bullying and abuse of very, very long standing.”

A masterful clarification of events indeed. The incident highlights the perils of combining justice and politics. Whilst the system of judicial appointments in the United Kingdom can certainly be improved, not least in terms of attracting more diverse candidates to the bench, the expectation of political neutrality on the part of UK judges is something that we should be proud of. Those who have criticised the apparent growing influence of unelected judges, and targeted their apparent lack of accountability, should perhaps look to Wisconsin for a warning of what can happen when judges are elected.