A massive influx of money, politics and personality have helped turn the state Supreme Court — a body long respected for reasoned decisions —into an arm of government every bit as volatile as the Legislature, court observers say.
Recent allegations of a physical confrontation between justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley have given the public a glimpse at problems that observers say have grown inside the court for more than a decade.
Some lay the blame at the feet of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a technically brilliant legal mind who critics say is not known for consensus building. Some fault Prosser and Bradley. But others say the real problem is the rapidly increasing influence of special interest money, combined with a growing partisan divide.
"They are getting more like the Legislature," said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville. "And that is not a compliment."
A serious sign of a change in the Supreme Court, observers say, came in 1999, the year four justices - including former Democratic Senate leader William Bablitch - publicly backed Abrahamson's opponent in a re-election campaign.
Not only did that race cost more than any other race before it - $1.38 million - it opened up a deep personal divide on the court.
That divide deepened in 2007, when Annette Ziegler and Linda Clifford competed for an open seat on the court. Ziegler won a race in which the candidates and special interest groups spent $5.8 million - more than four times the previous record.
"That's the year it went from elections to the Supreme Court to auctions for the Supreme Court," said Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a government watchdog group that analyzes campaign spending.
In 2008, third-party groups poured millions of dollars into a nasty Supreme Court race in which Justice Michael Gableman was elected, the first candidate to unseat a sitting justice since 1967.
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, said such special-interest spending has transformed the way justices arrive at the high court.
"Before big money, one of the big things people looked at was judicial temperament and qualifications," Heck said. "Now it's all ideologically driven."
Both Ziegler and Gableman faced ethics complaints that were presided over by the Supreme Court, which fueled the personal conflicts. The court agreed to publicly reprimand Ziegler, but split along conservative-liberal lines on a decision regarding how to handle a misleading ad Gableman ran against Louis Butler.
Abrahamson, 77, was the first woman on the Supreme Court. Then-Gov. Patrick Lucey appointed her to the post in 1976. She has served as chief justice since 1996, an honor bestowed by seniority.
Since the Prosser-Bradley altercation, critics have suggested Abrahamson bears some responsibility for the toxic nature that seems to exist on the court.
Prosser admitted earlier this year to calling her a "total bitch" and threatening to "destroy" her, though he blamed Abrahamson for goading him into it and accused her of sowing division on the court. Others point to that incident as an example of Prosser's temper on display.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in support of the collective bargaining bill, clearing the way for it to become law. Abrahamson, Bradley and Patrick Crooks, the liberal wing of the court, voted against the measure. The conservative justices, Prosser, Patience Roggensack, Gableman and Ziegler, supported it.
But in a sharply worded dissent on the decision, Abrahamson called the four-member majority's argument "disingenuous, based on disinformation" and "lacking a reasoned, transparent analysis" with "numerous errors of law and fact." She also called conservative Prosser's concurring opinion "long on rhetoric and long on storytelling that appears to have a partisan slant."
Observers noted that such a personal attack was unusual in the history of the court.
Or, as Prosser attorney Jim Troupis said during a panel discussion Wednesday about the high court, "words count, they hurt."
E. Michael McCann, a Democrat who served as Milwaukee County district attorney for 38 years until he retired in 2006, said he respects Abrahamson and thinks she has "a whole array of magnificent gifts."
"But the gift of being a peacemaker is not one of them," he said.
Heck said it isn't fair to blame Abrahamson for recent conflicts, adding that some men may be threatened by a strong woman justice.
"She is a strong-willed individual, she doesn't suffer fools. She is not a wallflower," Heck said.
Former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who served on the court from 1993-98, agreed.
"She's a very strong leader," Geske said. "Not everyone likes her style."
Former Justice William Callow, a conservative who served on the state Supreme Court from 1977 to 1992, said he has "had some serious concerns about the stability of the court" for years.
During his tenure on the court, Callow said, he proposed changing a provision in the state constitution that automatically assigned the longest-serving justice to the position of chief justice.
Going to a system in which the Supreme Court elects its chief justice for two- or three-year terms would improve the collegiality and civility of the court if justices knew their peers would choose their leader, Callow said.
"I think something constructive may come out of this tragic situation," he said.
Geske suggested mediation may be the solution.
"People have to have faith in the court," she said.
None of the current justices could not be reached for comment.