Now here is the problem as I saw it. My father made a mistake (or you could say he made the same mistake several times). Yes, of course he should have filed on time. The point is, he did something wrong and he was willing to pay the price, which he thought was paying fines, penalties, and interest. For years, nobody told him he couldn't do that. Nor did the state ever tell anybody else who habitually paid his taxes late that this was suddenly a terrible offense against the state. File late, pay the penalty — that was it.
By charging my father with these three misdemeanors for filing late, the state was arguing in effect that my father intended to defraud. They were arguing that he was a thief. It was difficult for me to understand, because how can you be a thief if you are paying the taxes plus fines and interest, a provision that Wisconsin allows as part of its state laws? It seemed like a stupid law. Who was hurt?
The misdemeanors broke my heart. My father decided to fight both the misdemeanors and the collateral civil proceeding.
But you know how slow courts can be. My father died in September 1989. Our hearing before the Wisconsin Supreme Court on the collateral civil matter was scheduled for January 1990.
Some people said I should just forget the whole thing. It was not a huge deal — the problems stemmed from three misdemeanors (which of course are minor offenses), and it did not involve much money. It would cost me more in airfares and expenses to go to Madison to argue the case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court than the case was worth to my father's estate. And, of course, my father was dead.
But I couldn't let it go, because I believed the state was wrong. My father had made a mistake, and he had paid the penalty. For the government to essentially call him a thief even after he was dead was just wrong. It just did not sit with me.
I'll never forget the day in January when I appeared before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It was during a blizzard, the snow so deep and the wind blowing so hard that I didn't even know if I could make it into the building. I had never seen such snow — even the flight into Wisconsin the day before had seemed life-threatening. But I was determined to do this.
I must have looked a wreck when I finally walked into the Wisconsin Supreme Court. (Actually, a newspaper account from the time described my appearance as "the hair that denied knowing of combs." Even then!) I stood up before the court on the little box they keep handy for short lawyers.
"My father was not a thief" was my first sentence. The justices of the supreme court seemed shocked. Those are not the usual introductory words to an argument. Usually you simply say "May it please the court" and then politely proceed.
Yes, I went on, my father had failed to pay his state income taxes on time; that was true. But he always paid them and the interest and penalties. And he had been suspended from the bench for two years for his late filing. To my mind, the state was going too far in saying he intended to defeat the income tax system. All of this I said without breaking eye contact with them.
One of the justices quickly interrupted me and said, "We aren't calling him a thief." But I didn't see it that way.