The dismissal of a complaint against one of the candidates for the Wisconsin Supreme Court seems appropriate to us, given the underlying accusations. But it should most definitely be a reminder to all those involved in the courts that there’s a great deal more to their credibility than just to be cognizant of the law.
The fundamental point on which the American court systems rest is, much like the elections themselves, trust. It’s not quite the same, but there is an absolute need for people to be able to feel they will have a fair and thorough hearing of the issues when they’re in court. That goes for whether people are litigants or defendants.
When judges or other court officials make ill-advised or ill-tempered comments in court, it undermines that fundamental trust. That’s corrosive. It challenges the basic assumption that people in court are owed equal treatment under law, that application of the law neutrally is an inherent right irrespective of one’s personal views.
In the issue which was recently settled, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky accused one of former President Donald Trump’s attorneys of using racist arguments to protect Trump, whom she referred to as the attorney’s “king.” The hearing in question was part of the numerous suits Trump and various attorneys filed in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
It was, at best, intemperate language from the bench. The merits of Karofsky’s underlying assertion can be debated, but we don’t believe decorum is.
Karofsky told the Associated Press in an email nothing in Wisconsin’s legal code requires “a judge to turn a blind-eye to dangerous, bad faith conduct by a lawyer or litigant.” That’s true, but neither does calling out such behavior require “mouse-like quiet.” We’ve been impressed in the past with judges who have done a sterling job in shutting down nonsense without finding a need to be combative.
The reason this catches our eye so clearly is that this, like so many other situations in a court case, will inevitably be viewed through the lens of an interested party. There are those who will cheer such comments as Karofsky’s, saying they are an example of a judge who was unwilling to have someone indulge in groundless grandstanding. There are also those who will cite it as evidence the judge’s personal biases were foundational in her decision.
It isn’t enough for judges to rule in an unbiased manner. They must be seen to do so. Those involved with the court must be observed to be evenhanded, even within a structure that lends itself to adversarial interactions.
The same is true, to a more limited degree, with those who are in court. Attorneys have an ironclad responsibility to do their best for their clients, but even that does not absolve them of the need for basic dignity.
That does not mean, of course, that every ruling and every point must go in your favor to have a fair case. Court proceedings, trials especially, are made of countless small moments in which the immediate context matters immensely. We can think of very few proceedings, other than the very simplest, in which any side wins every single point on which a judge is asked to rule.
We understand that maintaining a professional façade can indeed be a challenge when things become heated, as some hearings inevitably will. We don’t envy the job of judges or attorneys who need to keep their cool while someone else is losing theirs. It’s no easy task. It is, however, essential to the perception of fairness that is part of the system’s very base.
We will credit Karofsky for one point in this episode. Judicial complaints are, under Wisconsin law, confidential. The release of the complaint and its outcome is the kind of transparency we have urged courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States, to exercise. It is a step toward allowing people to understand and observe how the courts and those who work within them operate.
That, at least, is a step toward trust.
— From the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram