As startling as it was to read about a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice calling one of his colleagues a "bitch" and threatening to "destroy" her, the issue of civility is not really what the April 5 election is about.
That the Supreme Court has devolved into a bitter and puerile forum is unfortunate. But the bigger story is the degree to which corporate interests have taken over this branch of our government.
Sure, Justice David Prosser's outburst at Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson was unprofessional. Even unhinged. But consider the context.
The justices were discussing whether Justice Michael Gableman, who ran the dirtiest campaign in court history, should have to recuse himself from cases where he appears to have a conflict of interest, and whether he should be disciplined for the outright lies he told during his Willie Horton-style campaign.
When JoAnne Kloppenburg, who accepted public financing and has run out of money to print yard signs (hence all those rinky-dink homemade signs blanketing the isthmus), goes up against Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce candidate Prosser, the issue is not name-calling. The issue is whether we have any vestige of democracy left in our state.
The corporate takeover of our democracy in Wisconsin is truly breathtaking in its brazenness and scope. We know this now, thanks to Scott Walker and legislative Republicans' campaign to destroy everything from our public schools to the environment in the course of a few short months.
But before the hostile takeover of our statehouse came the corruption of our Supreme Court.
I wrote about Gableman's race in The Progressive magazine back in 2008, when it had already made national news for its sheer luridness. Despite being the most unqualified judge ever backed by the coalition of business interests that financed his candidacy, Gableman won. He did so despite resounding opposition from the vast majority of other judges in the state.
Gableman was elected in a campaign characterized by outright lies and race-baiting smears against the court's only African American justice, Louis Butler.
But bad as it was, the triumph of one unqualified pro-business hack who ran a dirty campaign would not be national news if it didn't represent a more ominous national trend.
"I've watched the flow of political money over the last 25 years," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "It used to be that most of the big money was focused on Washington. Then you started to see some of the kinds of lobbying organizations and special interest groups come in and seek to heavily influence state elections. So we saw this huge infusion of money."
In the last few years, McCabe said, the money had shifted to the courts: "They no longer are content with influencing lawmaking. They now want to influence how laws are enforced and interpreted as well."
That influence is more evident than ever in Wisconsin in 2011.
Prosser's campaign manager said his reelection is all about "protecting the conservative judicial majority and acting as a common-sense complement to both the new administration and Legislature."
WMC recently sent out a fundraising letter asking business leaders to make a "generous contribution" to keep Prosser on the court.
And why not? He cast the deciding vote in a 4-3 decision against ethics rules that would have required justices to recuse themselves from cases involving parties that donated $1,000 or more to their own campaigns.
Can't have that, can we?
The April 5 election will decide the direction of that 4-3 tilt. But it's not just whether liberals or conservatives control the court. It's not just whether we should have Wisconsin judges who sound like thugs facing a domestic violence rap ("Bitch had it coming"), as Prosser did when he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel his bitch remark was "warranted" because Abrahamson goaded him into making it.
It is really a test of whether voters have any voice at all, or whether, finally, our entire state is not just "open for business" but completely bought and sold.
Despite the Gableman win, McCabe told me back in 2008 that he took heart from the progressive era. "If you believe citizens can't overcome the power of organized money you haven't read Wisconsin's own history," he said. "Go back a century. People who were a lot less educated and a lot poorer than we are today succeeded against all odds fighting against corrupt, corporate interests."
Besides, he added, he's motivated by "the knowledge that if the public retreats it's the greatest gift we can give these interests."
"We should deny them that gift just to spite the bastards."
Get out that magic marker and make yourself a yard sign.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.