Are the Justices “liberals” and “conservatives”?

Yesterday’s post prompted an eminent Wisconsin attorney to contact me with an objection to the use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to characterize justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  Here are the portions of his argument that I can quote while shielding his identity:

Characterizing the justices as liberal or conservative, however, is no longer an apt description, if it ever truly was.  Our Supreme Court is not populated by conservatives and liberals, but by Republicans and Democrats.  They follow party lines.  Some of those lines can be described as liberal or conservative, but most are purely political.  [Next, as evidence, he suggested the court’s recent decision in County of Dane et al v. Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.]  This [case] presented no issues that could be described as conservative or liberal.  But it did involve a prominent Republican, Michael Huebsch.  The court split with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other.  . . . That case was just one more in what’s becoming a long line of politically motivated rulings.  Covid restrictions aren’t matters of conservative or liberal thought.  Nor are ballot lock boxes.  These are political questions.  It’s time that analysts, reporters and commentators began to use terms to describe the court and its justices that are more accurate.  Over the last 15 years, our Supreme Court has become politicized.  That is a very dangerous thing.  The public will not perceive the danger if we engage in verbal cleansing.  The justices, for the most part, represent political parties, not philosophies.  I urge you to refer to them as they are, not as we hoped they’d be.

Meanwhile, and independent of the comment above, a prominent retired appellate attorney offered this thought after summarizing yesterday’s post: “I prefer ‘leftist’ and ‘rightist’ to ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ believing as I do that the former terms are more descriptive these days.”

It’s difficult to write posts without using labels, but, of course, the convenience that they offer comes with some loss of precision.  Any pair of labels—“liberal” and “conservative,” “Democratic” and “Republican,” or “leftist” and “rightist”—will mean different things to different people, and it’s not clear to me how best to proceed.  I’m using “liberal” and “conservative” for now because they seem a bit more tactful (and the alternatives have problems of their own), but if readers can offer discussion or guidance, I’d be grateful.


About Alan Ball

Alan Ball is a Professor of History at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

SCOWstats offers numerical analysis of the voting by Wisconsin Supreme Court justices on diverse issues over the past 95 years.

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