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Wisconsin Supreme Court to rename State Law Library after Lavinia Goodell

The library is currently named after former conservative Justice David Prosser. Current conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley calls change 'another petty and vindictive maneuver' from liberal majority.

The entrance to the Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers is seen in the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. March 14, 2024. A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday asked for arguments within two days related to a question over what legislative boundaries should be in place for a potential recall election organized by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Todd Richmond/AP Photo, File

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will remove the name of former conservative Justice David Prosser from the State Law Library and rename it in honor of Wisconsin’s first woman to practice law. Current conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley is calling the move “another petty and vindictive maneuver” from the court’s liberal majority. 

A press release from the Supreme Court’s communications office, Wednesday, announced the State Law Library in Madison will be named in honor of Lavinia Goodell, who was admitted to practice law in 1874 by the Rock County Circuit Court. 

Despite the admission, Goodell was denied the right to represent a client before the Wisconsin Supreme Court the following year. In 1877, Goodell worked with state lawmakers to pass a bill allowing women to practice law in Wisconsin.

“Lavinia Goodell was a pioneer for Wisconsin women and the legal profession,” said Justice Jill Karofsky. “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.” 

Wisconsin Supreme Court Commissioner Nancy Kopp told WPR male lawyers at the time wouldn’t hire Goodell as a law clerk, so she studied on her own for two years before being admitted in Rock County.

“She certainly had an enormous impact for women lawyers, because all women lawyers who followed her, including myself, stand on her shoulders,” Kopp said. “She really broke the glass ceiling in terms of women being able to practice law, and it was never a sure thing that she was going to be able to be admitted.”

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The court’s announcement did not mention that the State Law Library is currently named after former conservative Justice David T. Prosser Jr. That designation was made in 2016, days before he retired from the court.

Naming the library after Prosser was a controversial move at the time. In July 2011, Prosser placed his hands around Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s neck during an argument over Act 10. Prosser said it was an act of self-defense, according to The Associated Press, and no criminal charges were filed. A formal complaint by the State Judicial Commission, which recommended Prosser be found guilty of ethics violations, was never resolved by the Supreme Court.

Emails also emerged in 2011 showing Prosser used an expletive to describe Justice Shirley Abrahamson in 2010, and threatened to “destroy” her over debates related to removing conservative-leaning Justice Mike Gableman from a case.

In a series of posts to the social media site X, current conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley railed against her liberal colleagues. She called the decision to remove Prosser’s name a “petty and vindictive maneuver.”

“As Wisconsin’s first female lawyer, Lavinia Goodell was a trailblazer,” Bradley said. “The court could have honored her achievements in a multitude of ways but instead the majority—again without the input or consent of their colleagues—chose to insult Justice Prosser.”

Wisconsin Department of Revenue Secretary Peter Barca, who was a Democratic state representative and Assembly Minority Leader in 2016, said Bradley should “at least reflect” on the fact that naming the law library after Prosser “during a very tumultuous period for the court” was ill timed.

“I think it’s going overboard for her to call it petty and vindictive,” said Barca.

The Supreme Court release said a ceremony naming the law library after Goodell will be held at a future date.