Bice: Supreme Court Chief Justice Roggensack blasted as ‘elitist,’ ‘out of touch’ for meatpacking remark

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During the Wisconsin Supreme Court session Justice Patience Roggensack blames the Covid-19 outbreak in Brown County coming from the meat packing plant, not ‘regular folks.’ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

How do you take an already heated Supreme Court hearing on Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order and make it even more explosive? 

First, you have one justice liken the order closing schools and businesses to “tyranny” while also bringing up the Japanese-American internment camps from World War II. Then you get Chief Justice Patience Roggensack to dial it up even more by appearing to downplay a flare-up of coronavirus cases at a major meatpacking facility in Brown County.   

“(The surge) was due to the meatpacking — that’s where Brown County got the flare,” Roggensack said. “It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.”

Not “just the regular folks”? 

Yikes.

That’s not sitting well with a lot of people, especially with those on the left.

“It’s elitist, and it’s racist,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Voces de la Frontera, noting that a high percentage of workers at meatpacking plants are minorities and immigrants. 

“It shows people bring their bias and their privilege to the court,” Neumann-Ortiz continued. “They can do so much damage.”

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State Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa said she was “very offended” by Roggensack’s statement. 

“It’s classist, and it’s out of touch,” said Zamarripa, a Milwaukee Democrat who is also a Milwaukee alderwoman. “It’s embarrassing that we have a Supreme Court justice who would say something like that.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he was “shocked” by the remark, and Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay accused Roggensack of “elitism and ignorance.” He said the statement showed the justice was “unfit to serve” on the high court.

Labor leaders were equally upset with Roggensack, the head of the conservative majority on the court. 

Pam Fendt, president of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, said she found Roggensack’s remark “divisive.” Her group represents 100 local unions with 25,000 workers. 

Fendt said those working at meatpacking plants live in neighborhoods, go to church and coach Little League. They are, she said, as much a part of the community as anyone else. 

“It is shocking and deeply offensive that Justice Patience Roggensack would suggest that workers in meatpacking plants aren’t ‘regular folks’ who deserve protection,” said the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1473, which represents 5,000 employees in meatpacking plants in Wisconsin. 

“Our hardworking members live, work and raise our families in Wisconsin and have been a part of the fabric of those communities for decades. These brave men and women are keeping our food supply chain strong when we need it most. We expect better from our state’s leaders during this crisis.”

One local Hispanic leader, however, pushed back on the criticism of the Supreme Court chief justice. 

Zeus Rodriguez, founder of Hispanics for School Choice, said anyone who suggests that Roggensack was being racist is “not being intellectually honest.” 

“She was making the point that the ‘flare’ was a result of a specific workplace and not from a general outbreak,” Rodriguez said. “I cannot even fathom how that could be construed as ‘racist’ outside of politics as usual.”

Clearly, the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Tuesday were anything but ordinary.  

The lawsuit is the latest battle between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature over who gets to run state government in Wisconsin. 

At issue is whether Evers and Department of Health Secretary Andrea Palm acted lawfully when Palm signed the order extending restrictions on business operations and schools until May 26.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress in the 5th District, and Speaker Robin Vos sued the governor, arguing the Evers administration cannot act on its own in perpetuity and must craft a long-term plan with lawmakers’ approval. 

‘The very definition of tyranny’

At Tuesday’s hearing, Justice Rebecca Bradley had already raised the temperature by suggesting the state’s stay-at-home order is “the very definition of tyranny.” She also invoked the country’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. 

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During discussions over the validity of Wisconsin’s ‘safer at home’ plan, Justice Rebecca Bradley compares it to the Japanese Internment camps of World War II. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Near the end of oral arguments, an attorney for the state noted that Brown County now has the second-highest number of cases — a change that occurred within a couple of weeks. 

Roggensack dismissed the idea that the outbreak was community-wide and could be replicated elsewhere. She argued that the increase was due mainly to an outbreak at one meatpacking facility. 

JBS Packerland in Green Bay closed its doors after at least 290 employees and 58 others linked to the plant tested positive for COVID-19. The facility has begun reopening part of its facility.

Roggensack didn’t respond to calls or emails on Wednesday. Justices are not supposed to discuss pending cases outside the courtroom. 

Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, defended Roggensack’s comments. He said that by “regular folks” she was referring to the general population of Brown County. 

“I don’t think she was being dismissive of employees at the plant,” Esenberg said. “She was just saying that she didn’t think there was a general outbreak in the county.”

Others weren’t buying it.

Darryl Morin, head of Forward Latino, pointed out that the justices are fortunate enough that they could conduct their hearing via teleconference, something that keeps them safe from contracting the coronavirus. Morin said those working at meatpacking plants don’t have that luxury.

Still, Morin suggested that these blue-collar employees could embrace Roggensack’s remark. 

“The justice may be correct,” he said. “They may not be regular people as their efforts in this extremely dangerous environment should be considered nothing less than heroic.”

Neumann-Ortiz said it is impossible to separate Roggensack’s remarks from the issue of race, given the large number of Hispanics and immigrants who work at meatpacking facilities. Neumann-Ortiz said the justice “made explicit” what had been unspoken on this issue in the past. 

Fendt, the labor leader, noted that JBS Packerland advertises for workers in Jalisco, Mexico.

“Over time, this has become an industry with many Latino workers, people who were attracted to an opportunity, who are working to achieve the American dream,” Fendt said. “Just the same, I imagine, as when Justice Roggensack’s family immigrated from Europe.” 

What’s more, it’s also impossible to separate this community in northern Wisconsin from the meatpacking industry. 

Brown County, of course, is home to the Green Bay Packers. The team’s first sponsor was the Indian Packing Co., which packed canned meats and sent them to soldiers and sailors at the end of World War I.

Though the sponsor was later dropped, the name Packers stuck with the team. 

Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 224-2135 or dbice@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.

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