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The impeachment of Judge Hubbell

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

Wisconsin has had a reputation for effective, clean government for many years. But it was not always thus. The story of Levi Hubbell of Milwaukee, an early justice of the state Supreme Court, is one of the more colorful episodes of Wisconsin's early political history and shows that "lawyer bashing" has a long history in this state.

Hubbell was dogged by controversy all his life. As a young lawyer he enjoyed a meteoric political rise: after an early career in New York, he moved to Wisconsin in 1844 and was elected to the state Supreme Court four years later. But Hubbell was politically fickle and often hurt people's feelings with careless remarks. As a result, he made many enemies.

In the early 1850s Hubbell angered Edward Ryan, an influential Milwaukee lawyer, when he refused to take seriously Ryan's charges that the Supreme Court was not working as well as it should. When the Court was reorganized in 1852, Ryan helped deny Hubbell nomination to the new court. Hubbell then became a trial judge.

Later that year Hubbell presided over a murder trial which Ryan prosecuted. The defendant confessed to murder, but under the law the confession could not be given to the jury as evidence. The jury acquitted the defendant. An angry Hubbell, forgetting the jury did not know about the confession, dismissed the jurors with the curse: "May God have mercy on your consciences!" Ryan and the jury foreman then struck back at Hubbell by asking the Wisconsin Legislature to impeach him -- that is, remove him from office -- for a list of offenses which Ryan drew up.

Ryan "was temperamentally disposed to hate evil more than love good," and the luckless Hubbell was the focus of his hatred for the next year. In a long, heavily publicized trial Ryan accused Hubbell of such offenses as accepting bribes; hearing cases where he had a personal interest in the outcome; and allowing himself to be approached and influenced outside court by people involved in cases before him. During his closing argument to the Legislature, Ryan described Hubbell's effect on the justice system in blistering language:

If by your judgment [Hubbell] is to be the model of judicial integrity, his conduct your standard of judicial purity, let the statue of Justice be ordered for your capitol. Tell [the sculptor] to erect up there, upon the dome of this capitol, the marble image of a jaded, decayed, broken, unclean, diseased wanton, blinking from behind the distorted bandage put upon her eyes to dupe the scruples of mankind, and reaching for the hand which has dropped the sword of justice, to put the weight of avarice and lust, and every unclean passion, into the scales to bear down truth and right.

The Legislature refused to remove Hubbell from office but left a cloud of disrepute hanging over him. It made clear that Hubbell's conduct had been far from exemplary and that in future judges would be expected to act impartially both in and outside the courtroom. Hubbell's career was permanently damaged. He left the bench when his term expired and never returned. He worked as a lawyer and ended his career with another scandal in the 1870s: he was briefly appointed the chief federal attorney for eastern Wisconsin but resigned when he was accused of complicity in a government patronage scandal then receiving national attention. Many people at the time felt Ryan went too far in his crusade against Hubbell, but in the long run he may have helped save Wisconsin's justice system from permanent damage. Ryan's biographer concluded, probably correctly, that:

Ryan ... reminded men that justice is a precious entity which must be dispensed by irreproachable men in unpolluted tribunals. Thereafter Wisconsin judges paused before they acted, and the crudities of frontier morality gradually disappeared from the courtroom.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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