Back in February 2009, we named the Honorable Joseph Wall a Judge of the Day. Joe Wall, at the time a Wisconsin trial court judge, used the term “baby mama” at the sentencing of an African-American defendant. He also made additional amusing quips — e.g., suggesting that “baby mamas” congregate at “a club” to find their unemployed, wastrel boyfriends.
An appeals court, finding Judge Wall’s comments to be inappropriate, held that the defendant was entitled to a new trial. But now the Wisconsin Supreme Court has reversed the appeals court, in a unanimous decision — a rarity on that
utterly dysfunctional famously fractured court.
So, what did the Wisconsin court conclude?
In a rare 7-0 ruling, the court rejected the appeals court notion that if a reasonable observer might think racial or gender stereotypes influenced the trial judge, Landray Harris deserved a new hearing. Rather, the high court found, Harris needed to show by clear and convincing evidence that then-Circuit Judge Joe Wall did base his sentence on such inappropriate factors, and the justices found he did not.
Wall, who left the bench in 2007 to rejoin the U.S. attorney’s office, managed a chuckle Wednesday when observing that he somehow managed to bring unanimity to Wisconsin’s often-fractured high court.
“Race was never a factor in this case, and Harris’ sentencing attorney told your newspaper as much,” he said, referring to the original coverage of the appeals court ruling in January 2009.
Now that he’s back in federal court, safely ensconced in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Wall was able to get slightly snarky about those state appellate judges who got him in trouble before:
“The Supreme Court, using simple common sense and following established law, found that two judges from the court of appeals lifted out of context four of my words from two separate sections of a 32-page transcript and twisted the plain meaning of those words into something offensive,” Wall said.
“Then they devised their own legal standard to justify the result they sought. As (U.S. Supreme Court nominee) Elena Kagan said in her confirmation hearing, ‘Results oriented judging is the worst sort of judging.’”
Ouch. Appeals court judges, you just got housed. (Yes, my knowledge of street lingo is a bit dated.)
Amusingly enough, although the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision was unanimous in terms of result, some justices used the case as an opportunity for airing the court’s own dirty laundry. They got in some digs at the author of the court’s opinion, Justice Michael Gabelman, who was accused of violating the code of judicial conduct by using a race-baiting campaign ad back in 2008:
[T]hree justices who had sided against Gableman in his ethics case wrote a concurring opinion that made the point that the appearance of justice is indeed something important to consider.
“We accepted Harris’s petition for review to resolve how courts should address questions related to an appearance of bias. Yet, that issue does not appear in the majority opinion,” except in two footnotes dismissing the concurrence, wrote Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.
In a bit of measured understatement, Bradley refers to two other cases involving Gableman and the appearance of bias, regarding recusals and a change in the ethics code, and notes, “Both of these questions have been difficult for the court.”
Meow. So much for the stereotype of “nice” Midwesterners!