Time for chief justice to step aside

As the investigation into the “he said-she said” confrontation between two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices continues, here’s an observation from the world of management:

The tone, atmosphere and culture of any organization start at the top.

The two justices involved in the alleged shouting- shoving match, David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley, need to do whatever they have to do to prevent such a degrading occurrence from ever happening again. Decorum must be the hallmark of any high court.

But I look to the leadership of the court, to Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson to get a grip on the organization. There are many courts in the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, where there are huge divides in political and judicial philosophy, but where they still function in a dignified manner.

Abrahamson has had problems in the past with justices, even with justices of her own partisan persuasion. And she clearly is part of the bitter debate on the current court. Her dissent in the recent 4-3 ruling to allow the Legislative decision on public union bargaining was stinging and virtually personal in nature.

How then can she run the court’s business in any kind of even-handed, respectful way?

I have learned from 50 years in journalism that you can disagree with anyone and still maintain a relationship; you just need to acknowledge the other person’s point-of-view.  I once labeled Mayor John Norquist “a Scandinavian socialist” in a column; he called up, maintained he believed in free markets more than capitalists demonstrated in practice; and we stayed on good terms.

Chief Justice Abrahamson has not created a mode of respect, and it may be the time for her to step aside. Even though the state’s constitution provides for the longest serving justice to be the head of the court, she could voluntarily turn the reins over to another justice with better managerial skills.

She has been chief justice for 15 years. That’s long enough.

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