Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 15

2005—More mischief from the Wisconsin supreme court. This time, the same four-justice majority as in Ferdon (see This Day for July 14, 2005), in an opinion by associate justice Louis B. Butler Jr., rules in Thomas v. Mallett that the “risk-contribution theory”—which essentially shifts the burden of proof on key issues from the plaintiff to defendants—applies in a product-liability action against manufacturers of lead pigment.

As the dissent puts it, the “end result is that the defendants, lead pigment manufacturers, can be held liable for a product they may or may not have produced, which may or may not have caused the plaintiff’s injuries, based on conduct that may have occurred over 100 years ago when some of the defendants were not even part of the relevant market.”

In April 2008, Wisconsin voters, presented the opportunity to alter what one commentator aptly called the “4-3 liberal majority [that had become] the nation’s premier trailblazer in overturning its own precedents and abandoning deference to the legislature’s policy choices,” defeat Butler’s bid to remain on the court.

In 2009 President Obama will attempt to re-impose Butler on the citizens of Wisconsin by nominating him to a federal district judgeship, but Senate Democrats’ unwillingness to push for a floor vote and the election in 2010 of a Republican senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, will lead to the demise of the nomination.

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