Restoring Public Confidence in the Judicial System

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Category: Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Ethics, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System, Wisconsin Supreme Court
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“[A] lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”  Taken from paragraph six of the Preamble[1] to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, this quote sets out our duty to educate the public.

In April 2009, then Wisconsin State Bar President Diane Diel discussed this very quote in a short article published in Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.[2]  The article focused on the negative effect judicial elections have on the public’s confidence in the judicial system — discussing current Justice Michael Gableman’s allegedly unethical ad that aired during his campaign against Justice Louis Butler and his subsequent disciplinary hearing — and the ever-controversial topic of judicial recusals, focusing on whether judges should be required to recuse themselves from deciding cases in which they received campaign contributions from an interested party.

Diel’s article seems to have foreshadowed the current turbulence in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has led to plunging confidence in the judicial system.  

Since the 2009 article was published, an extremely heated Supreme Court campaign occurred between incumbent Justice David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg, which included multiple negative television ads disclosing outbursts and derogatory comments Prosser made in chambers towards Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.  These ads, outbursts, and statements have led members of the Court to openly admit that the Court is dysfunctional.[3]

Justice Prosser retained his seat, but since then the politically divided court has seen justices on both sides involved in such things as name-calling, threats, alleged physical violence, and complaints to law enforcement agencies about workplace safety.  Last June, Justices Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley were part of a physical altercation that concluded with allegations that Prosser put Bradley in a choke-hold.  This past May, the Court decided not to reappoint John Dawson as the chairman of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which was responsible for investigating ethical charges against Prosser resulting from the alleged choke-hold incident, leading Chief Justice Abrahamson to publicly criticize the Court’s “conservative majority”[4] and Justices Prosser and Roggensack to publicly disclose that the Chief Justice threatened them[5] and accused them of being “corrupt” during a closed door meeting.[6]

If the public tension between the Justices was not enough, empirical evidence supports the conclusion that the public lacks confidence in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  In 2008, a survey[7] conducted by Justice at Stake showed that approximately 52% of Wisconsin voters were confident in their Supreme Court.  As of July 2011, after the choke-hold allegations, that number dropped to 33%; two-thirds of Wisconsin voters lack confidence in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Ultimately, something needs to be done to restore public confidence in the judicial system, and it should begin at the individual level with Wisconsin’s 22,000 lawyers.  Diane Diel’s 2009 article provides a great message, but regardless, restoring public confidence will only occur when all lawyers step up to the plate and embrace the important duty provided in our Professional Responsibility Preamble.  Every lawyer individually needs to conduct him or herself in a way that will help restore public confidence in our judicial system.

It is fitting that the Preamble ends by emphasizing the main point of this blog: “Lawyers play a vital role in the preservation of society.  The fulfillment of this role requires an understanding by lawyers of their relationship to our legal system.”  Each and every attorney needs to understand their personal relationship with the judicial system and promote the public’s confidence therein.  In addition to being a counselor, advocate, negotiator, etc., we are ambassadors for the legal profession, and it is our duty to the profession to ensure that the public, the very people we have sworn to help, have confidence in the judicial system even if that means educating the public about problems in our profession when the organized bar and lawyer regulators don’t.

Attorney Michael F. Hupy is a Certified Civil Trial Specialist and Marquette University graduate. He focuses on injury law at his firm, Hupy and Abraham, S.C., and supports many safety programs, including the Hupy and Abraham “Watch for Motorcycles” Awareness Program and other community organizations. In 2011, the firm donated over $150,000 to more than 100 local organizations.



[1]available at http://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/model_rules_of_professional_conduct_preamble_scope.html

[2] available at http://www.wisbar.org/am/template.cfm?section=wisconsin_lawyer&template=/cm/contentdisplay.cfm&contentid=79664

[3] available at http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/118310479.html

[4] available at http://media.jsonline.com/documents/Dawson+Letter.pdf

[5] available at http://www.gavelgrab.org/?p=36174#more-36174

[6] available at http://m.jsonline.com/?cid=151182085& and http://www.gavelgrab.org/?p=36174#more-36174

[7] available at http://www.justiceatstake.org/media/cms/WI_Merit_Poll_Results_734DCFE0AA5C8.pdf

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4 Responses to “Restoring Public Confidence in the Judicial System”

  1. I recently had dinner with a former Justice of the Florida Supreme Court (name withheld) and discussed our (Wisconsin) Court’s recent embarrassing fisticuffs and WWF choke holds. What a professional disappointment.

    The Florida Justice barely believed my rendition of the reported allegations in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I am furnishing the former Justice with a copy of Mike Hupy’s MU Law blog–thanks Mike and thanks MU Law.

  2. I take issue with the concept that individual lawyers have anything to do with public confidence in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Every day, tens of thousands of Wisconsin lawyers are doing their jobs, acting honorably and promoting justice. What does that have to do with how the public perceives our Supreme Court? Nothing.

    The author calls on lawyers to educate the public. How? The public is influenced by mass media, not the actions of any individual lawyers. Lawyers are already doing the right thing every day of the week. The problem was caused by the court and needs to be solved by the court.

  3. One lawyer cannot do it alone, but we all have an obligation to do what we can. Hupy and Abraham, S.C. reaches tens of thousands of people with each of our two in-house publications and tens of thousands more on our website.
    Please read the first blog post in this series (http://law.marquette.edu/facultyblog/2012/09/04/why-were-the-lawyers-wearing-blinders/) to see how much better things can get when lawyers help repair the problems caused by a corrupt judge.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Mike. The situation in Pennsylvania was an abomination. It reveals that lawyers were afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs and retribution from a corrupt judges. But it was not any individual lawyer who blew the whistle, it was a group of lawyers. Moreover, what of those PA DAs? Where were they? Where was the media? I submit that for many lawyers faced with the same circumstances, the only real freedom they have is to shut up or ruin their legal careers. That is a sad commentary on our society, but those who speak out are often crushed by those who are perpetrating injustice. We claim to be a society that values free speech. In practice, exercising it is often the road to ruin.

    70% of all Wisconsin lawyers are solos. They are doing the right thing every day. The problems with our Supreme Court need to be fixed by the court. Individual lawyers are doing their best every day but that will not fix the problem at the court. Only the justices can do that.

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