Three years ago today I landed in Wisconsin with my family and it’s an anniversary I celebrate every year. As I’ve made clear – here, with friends, co-workers, strangers – I love this great state. And while I don’t want everyone to move here because I like the space, everyone should visit. Everyone should see the amazing bluffs and valleys of southwestern Wisconsin, the beautiful farmland of central Wisconsin (and Madison’s amazing farmers’ market!), the great shoreline of Lake Michigan, and the incredible lakes and falls of northern Wisconsin. And drink some beer and eat some ice cream, of course!
If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe these guys:
That’s right! The greatest state in the Union is using one of the greatest comedies of all time (Caddyshack will always be first in my heart, but this is a close second) to spread the word. Do young people even get the joke here? Of course, I didn’t get the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joke (“I never should have left”). It had to be explained to me by a long-term ‘Sconnie (and sports fan) that Kareem was actually drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks as the No. 1 draft pick back in 1969 and led them to a championship before leaving for the Lakers.
So yes, I’m happy to be living here – and practicing law here (or at least based here, I’m still licensed in Texas, along with Florida). The Wisconsin Supreme Court has had a scandal or two, but it also has a proud history.
One of its shining moments came in the lead up to the Civil War. A center of the abolitionist movement, two Wisconsin abolitionists were charged with aiding a fugitive slave in escaping to Canada in 1854. In the appeals that followed, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional – the only state supreme court to do so. In In re Booth, 3 Wis. 1 (1854), the Wisconsin Supreme Court found the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional for several reasons, most of which dealt with who could wield judicial power under the Constitution. But the Court also held that the procedures under this repugnant act violated constitutional due process because there was no process. The Court noted that under our Constitution everyone is entitled to their “day in court” – a chance to have notice of the charges against them, to question witnesses and rebut their testimony, and to present their defense. As the Court so eloquently put it (one hundred and sixty years ago and yet we still need the reminder today):
“The passing of judgment upon any person without his “day in court;” without due process, or its equivalent, is contrary to the law of nature, and of the civilized world, and without the express guaranty of the constitution, it would be implied as a fundamental condition of all civil governments.”
Just reading those words – and this opinion – makes me proud to be part of the Wisconsin Bar. Unfortunately, a shameful footnote to this opinion (during the most shameful period in our nation’s history) is that it was overturned by the United States Supreme Court. I couldn’t read the whole opinion – I was in a good mood right until I started skimming it – but I will share with you this quote from their opinion, which is embarrassing in its apologist attitude towards the Fugitive Slave Act (and slavery itself), especially when compared with the Wisconsin Supreme Court:
“[It] is proper to say that, in the judgment of this court, the act of Congress commonly called the fugitive slave law is, in all of its provisions, fully authorized by the Constitution of the United States.”
Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. 506, 526, 16 L. Ed. 169 (1858).
Ugh. I really don’t even know what to say to that, except that I’m glad that Wisconsin and its Supreme Court were on the right side of history. And because I don’t want to dwell on the negative on such a special day, I’ll end by returning to my original point – you should all visit the great state of Wisconsin. Hike Amnicon Falls, check out the beautiful Viroqua courthouse, eat some Bapcock Dairy ice cream, visit the Milwaukee Art Museum with its movable wings, and then head up to Green Bay to the home of football legends for a game.