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Commentary: Judge’s intemperate remarks warrant official review

By: Associated Press//April 26, 2024//

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Commentary: Judge’s intemperate remarks warrant official review

By: Associated Press//April 26, 2024//

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Eau Claire Leader Telegram. April 21, 2024.

One of our sister papers, the Sawyer County Record, published the results of a yearlong investigation last week. It focused on the accounts of former employees of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, who accused the former director of repeatedly sexually harassing women in the organization.

Four of the women accused Michael “Mic” Isham, who previously served as the organization’s executive director, of directly harassing them with continuous “sexual banter” and comments about the women themselves. The fifth said she was not harassed, but witnessed the behavior.

The women, who we are not naming here, put their complaints in writing and submitted them to the commission. One wrote she “came to understand that there was nothing I could do to respect me as a professional or engage on my projects; politely listening to his inappropriate and insulting commentary was an ineffective strategy. I began to use direct and indirect (nonverbal) communication to express my disgust. In response, he stopped talking to me almost entirely.”

Another told the commission that Michael Isham, upon seeing interns arrive and have supervisors assigned, nudged her and said she should guess “which one I banged.” One of the 19-year-old interns later filed her own report of harassment.

The women’s stories aren’t identical, but do have enough overlapping details to reinforce one another. That’s particularly clear from the submission from the woman who said she wasn’t harassed but witnessed his behavior. She said she watched as, during an all staff meeting, “he was making comments about women that wear, not wearing bras. And it was just very uncomfortable, very unprofessional.”

Another allegation that shows up repeatedly? The women said they brought their concerns to the commission’s board, but it failed to act.
Such serious accusations usually, when directed against a high-profile member of the community, elicit strong responses from that person’s allies. That’s not the case here. In fact, after cancelling an interview, Michael Isham suggested the Record contact four people who would back him up.

Only two responded, and neither of them would put themselves on the line and go on the record. That silence speaks volumes.
Only one person has publicly attacked the paper, and that’s Isham’s daughter. A family member’s comments wouldn’t normally warrant concern or space here. Monica Isham’s wouldn’t either — except for the fact she’s a judge in the Sawyer County Circuit Court.

Judge Isham referred to the women’s complaints in a Facebook post as “old, unfounded stories” and referred to the Record as engaging in “in a pathetic attempt to become a tabloid to save their failing newspaper.”
Those intemperate comments aren’t the first of this nature she has made. Last year she said news and media “are no better than gossip columnists or tabloids.”

As we’ve said before, it’s not enough for judges to be unbiased on the bench. They need to be seen to be. We can’t believe that, given Isham’s comments, any woman bringing sexual harassment complaints to her court would feel like she would get a fair hearing. Nor do we believe she could preside fairly over any complaint involving the Record.

The comments may also violate the code of conduct for Wisconsin judges. SCR 60.05 says a Wisconsin judge “shall so conduct the judge’s extra-judicial activities as to minimize the risk of conflict with judicial obligations.” We see a reasonable argument for the comments violating that standard.

Do such comments from a sitting judge warrant removal? We don’t think so. But any judge who so flagrantly airs biases compromises the ability to be seen as fair. That should earn a slap on the wrist from the State of Wisconsin’s Judicial Commission.


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