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Wisconsin Supreme Court takes David Prosser’s name off law library, renames it for first woman lawyer

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//June 21, 2024//

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Photo

Wisconsin Supreme Court takes David Prosser’s name off law library, renames it for first woman lawyer

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//June 21, 2024//

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By Jessie Opoien, [email protected]

MADISON — The Wisconsin law library will no longer bear the name of former state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and will instead be named in honor of Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer, the liberal majority of the state Supreme Court announced Wednesday.

The change comes just a little more than seven years after the library was named for Prosser, who retired from the court in July 2016, and two days after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proclaimed June 17 “Wisconsin Women Lawyers Day.”

The move sparked ire among conservatives, including among the chief of staff to a top Republican lawmaker overseeing the Senate’s judiciary committee who called the court’s liberal majority a derogatory term for women in reaction to Prosser’s removal.

Goodell was admitted by the Rock County Circuit Court to practice law in Wisconsin on June 17, 1874. One year later, she was barred from representing her client in an appeal to the state’s high court. Goodell then drafted legislation to guarantee the right for women to practice law in Wisconsin, which was signed into law by Gov. Harrison Ludington in 1877.

Following the law’s enactment, she became the first woman to brief a case for consideration by the state Supreme Court in 1879, and argued and won her first case shortly before her death in 1880.

“Naming the State Law Library in Lavinia Goodell’s honor is an opportunity to recognize her legacy and inspire the next generation of women in Wisconsin,” Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, the court’s longest-serving justice, said in a statement.

There was no apparent opposition within the court to honoring Goodell, but there was not unanimous support among the court’s justices for removing Prosser’s name from the law library.

“There are many ways to honor Lavinia Goodell, which is entirely appropriate, without dishonoring a lifelong public servant like Justice David Prosser,” Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday.

In the most recent edition of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s official publication, “Wisconsin Lawyer,” Ziegler wrote a column recognizing Goodell’s achievements.

“Goodell’s pioneering spirit and her refusal to let anyone stand in the way of her goal paved the way for thousands of Wisconsin women to enter the legal profession and become not just lawyers but also judges and even justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” Ziegler wrote. “I wonder what Goodell would say if she knew that six of the seven seats on the court that initially denied her admission in 1876 are now occupied by women. I suspect she would be both stunned and rightfully proud.”

Prosser, who spent nearly 18 years on the high court — including some of its most turbulent — told the Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that he didn’t hear about the proposed change until it had already been decided. He also stressed that he had no objection to the court honoring Goodell.

“I was a person, for 18 years, who probably used the library … as much as anyone, and more than a lot of people,” Prosser said, adding that he has continued to support the library financially since his retirement.

When the library was named for Prosser, then-Chief Justice Patience Roggensack said, “no justice has been more dedicated to the research that happens in the law library than Justice Prosser.”

The naming of the library for Prosser came just before his retirement in 2016 after a tumultuous tenure on the court that included heated exchanges with Walsh Bradley, who was one of the justices who made the decision to remove his name from the library this week.

In 2011, Walsh Bradley asked Prosser to seek therapy to manage his anger after he put his hands around her neck during one tense incident. He declined to do so.

Bradley told the Journal Sentinel in 2011 that Prosser put his hands around her neck in what she called a “chokehold” during an argument in justices’ chambers over when to release a divided decision on then-Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial law curbing collective bargaining rights.

Prosser said before the library was named for him in 2016 he had expected it would be named in honor of former Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. The Wisconsin Historical Society Library Reading Room was named for Abrahamson in 2022. Prosser said he would be “absolutely against” having that title removed if an effort were made to do so.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a Supreme Court justice — maybe Shirley Abrahamson came a close second — that spent so much time (in the law library),” former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who appointed Prosser to the court in 1998, told the Journal Sentinel. “That’s why they thought it was so fitting when he left the court to name the law library after him, because he used it so extensively. … That was his second home.”

Thompson, the state’s longest-serving governor, pegged the current court as “the most partisan, ideologically left justices that Wisconsin’s ever had.”

The removal of Prosser’s name from the library comes nearly a year after the court’s ideological majority shifted from conservative to liberal for the first time in years with the election of Justice Janet Protasiewicz.

Scott Kelly, chief of staff for state Sen. Van Wanggaard, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, called the four women who comprise the court’s liberal majority a disparaging term for women.

“Unbelievable. What partisan, petty bitches the liberal Supreme Court Justices are,” Kelly said in a post on the social media platform X.

The liberal justices on the court, who are all women, declined to comment on Kelly’s post. Wanggaard did not immediately respond on Thursday to a voicemail from the Journal Sentinel.

Brian Nemoir, Prosser’s 2011 campaign manager, said “petty and vindictive politics reflect poorly on those trusted to serve as the highest ranking arbiters of our state’s legal system.”

“Actions, with the unforeseen upside of further amplifying the grace and dignity of Justice Prosser, who deserves to be mentioned among our state’s finest public servants,” he told the Journal Sentinel.

The Wisconsin State Library was established by the same congressional act that created the Territory of Wisconsin in 1836. Its name was changed to the Wisconsin State Law Library in 1977, and it moved to its current location in the Risser Justice Center in downtown Madison in 2002.

“Lavinia Goodell was a pioneer for Wisconsin women and the legal profession,” said Justice Jill Karofsky in a statement. “She never backed down from this critical fight, which paved the way for so many women in our state who have proudly served as lawyers, judges, and justices.”

When people enter the library, Protasiewicz said in a statement, “they need to know they are somewhere named after a leader who inspired others to do good and do what is right.”

Rachel Hale of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

This article first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was republished with permission.

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