"If you rule against him, against the estate, you are," I said. Associate Justice Shirley Abrahamson quoted the precedent of a 1947 case where a lawyer hadn't paid his taxes, ever. But she missed the point. My father had paid his taxes — just late.
I argued that the 1947 clause was not a precedent and didn't apply because my father had paid his taxes.
And on it went.
Four months later, in April 1990, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in my father's favor. We had won. They did not reverse the misdemeanors, but on the civil matter they ruled that he had not intended to defraud the state's taxpayers.
There had been lots of talk when my father faced these misdemeanors. Many people liked my father, so they were upset about what they thought was an unnecessary use of state resources to go after him. Some people even had a theory about why my father had been prosecuted, since he was rumored to have been the only state taxpayer ever prosecuted for paying taxes late in Wisconsin. The state attorney general at the time was the great-grandnephew of former United States senator Robert La Follette Jr., the man who Joe McCarthy had defeated in the 1946 Senate primary, the campaign that had been run by my father. They called my father's tax problems "La Follette's revenge."
You know what? I never thought about it. I don't care and I never did. It doesn't matter. I can only hope that a personal disagreement over politics didn't lead to such a dreadful result. This is what I mean when I say disagreement about issues or tactics should never, ever turn personal.
I can only hope that the prosecution of my father was not done for political reasons. And yes, I have no doubt about it — he should have paid his state taxes on time.
Fairness and good judgment — not perfect judgment — is all my parents ever demanded of me, and that is all that I have demanded of others. That means my friends, my colleagues, my family, and my employers. Everyone.
P.S.: I do know my father would have been very proud of me for standing up for what I believe. He also — for me, and not for him — would have loved that I won.
Excerpted from My Turn at the Bully Pulpit by Greta Van Sustern. Used with permission. Copyright August 2003, Random House.