By Bill Lueders, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Updated: June 25, 2011
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser allegedly grabbed fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley around the neck in an argument in her chambers last week, according to at least three knowledgeable sources.
Details of the incident, investigated jointly by Wisconsin Public Radio and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, remain sketchy. The sources spoke on the condition that they not be named, citing a need to preserve professional relationships.
They say an argument that occurred before the court’s release of a decision upholding a bill to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employees culminated in a physical altercation in the presence of other justices. Bradley purportedly asked Prosser to leave her office, whereupon Prosser grabbed Bradley by the neck with both hands.
Justice Prosser, contacted Friday afternoon by the Center, declined to comment: “I have nothing to say about it.” He repeated this statement after the particulars of the story — including the allegation that there was physical contact between him and Bradley — were described. He did not confirm or deny any part of the reconstructed account.
Bradley also declined to comment, telling WPR, “I have nothing to say.”
The sources say Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs was notified of the incident. One source says Tubbs came in to meet with the entire Supreme Court about this matter. Tubbs, contacted by Wisconsin Public Radio, declined to comment.
Sources also say the matter was called to the attention of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which investigates allegations of misconduct involving judges. James Alexander, executive director of the commission, said Friday that “we can neither confirm nor deny” that the incident was under investigation. “The commission hasn’t given me any authority to make any confirmation.”
Amanda Todd, spokesperson for the court, sent an email to the full court on Friday afternoon informing them of the Center’s media inquiries on the matter. Reporters also contacted each justice individually. As of the end of day Friday, none of the justices had commented.
The Journal Sentinel reached out to all of the justices Saturday, but did not immediately receive a return phone call or message.
It is unclear what day the incident took place. Sources say it happened last week, before the court’s release of its ruling on the collective bargaining case. The decision was released on the afternoon of June 14.
The Judicial Commission was created by the Supreme Court in 1971 to “discipline and correct judges who engage in conduct which has an adverse effect upon the judicial administration of justice and the confidence of the public and the judiciary and its process.” It investigates possible violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct, officially Chapter 60 of the Supreme Court Rules, with ultimate decisions on discipline being imposed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Chapter 60 states that judges are required to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary” and “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety” in all activities. And Chapter 62 requires judges and other court personnel to “be civil in their dealings with one another” and “abstain from any conduct that may be characterized as uncivil, abrasive, abusive, hostile or obstructive.”
Judicial Commission investigations are confidential, unless it issues a formal complaint against a judge. But the commission’s rules also state, “Should a complaint or investigation become known to the public, the Commission may issue a brief statement to confirm its pendency, clarify the procedural aspects of the proceedings, state that the judge denies the allegations,” and provide other basic information.
Prosser, 68, a former Republican legislator who served as Assembly Speaker, was appointed to the court in 1998 by Gov. Tommy Thompson. He won a high-profile April election that was often cast as a referendum of sorts on the policies of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, including his effort to strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees. Prosser, after a recount, defeated challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg by 7,000 votes out of nearly 1.5 million cast.
The decision was released late in the afternoon June 14, only eight days after the court heard oral arguments on the case. On June 13, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, had suggested that the court could rule on the matter soon, saying his party intended to introduce the changes as a budget amendment the following day if the court did not act by then.
The 4-3 decision, which held that Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi overstepped her authority in voiding the bill, was notably contentious. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote a stinging dissent chiding the majority for “hastily reaching judgment” on a ruling that was “disingenuous, based on disinformation,” “lacking a reasoned, transparent analysis” and laden with “numerous errors of law and fact.”
Abrahamson singled out Prosser for criticism, calling his concurrence “long on rhetoric and long on story-telling that appears to have a partisan slant. Like the order, the concurrence reaches unsupported conclusions.” She said the ruling “seems to open the court unnecessarily to the charge that the majority has reached a pre-determined conclusion not based on the facts and the law… .”
Prosser acknowledged in March that he called Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a “bitch” and threatened to “destroy” her during a closed-door meeting.
At the time, Prosser told the Journal Sentinel that the outburst to Abrahamson came after the chief justice took steps to undermine him politically and to embarrass him and other court conservatives.
“In the context of this, I said, ‘You are a total bitch,” Prosser said. “I probably overreacted, but I think it was entirely . . . warranted. They (Abrahamson and Bradley) are masters at deliberately goading people into perhaps incautious statements. This is bullying and abuse of very, very long standing.”
In a March interview Bradley said Prosser had flashes of extreme anger on and off over the years.
“It’s been going on for years off and on,” she said in March of Prosser’s outbursts.
After Prosser’s outburst, Bradley sent an email to him and other justices saying the behavior was unacceptable. She said this March that from the time of her email until then there had been no incidents of similar magnitude.
She said she sent the email in an effort to stop Prosser from behaving inappropriately.
“I’ve been trying over the years to (figure out) best how to deal with it and one way is to call it out, and that’s what this email was,” Bradley said in March. “I’ve thought of other ways that have been unsuccessful. This was to describe it as it is and then you can deal with it.”
At the time of Prosser’s outburst to Abrahamson, Bradley said she considered going to law enforcement.
It “crossed my mind but I didn’t want to do it,” she said.
“This…for me at least in part is about the institution,” she added. “This behavior shouldn’t be occurring at the workplace.”
An hour and a half before sending her Feb. 18, 2010 email to all the justices, Bradley sent an email to Abrahamson and Justice N. Patrick Crooks expressing her frustration with Prosser’s outbursts.
“As you both know, I am no longer wiling to tolerate Prosser’s abusive behavior,” Bradley wrote. “I have been at a loss just how to proceed.”
Patrick Marley and Sharif Durhams of the Journal Sentinel staff as well as Center reporter Kate Golden and Wisconsin Public Radio reporters Gil Halsted and Teresa Shipley contributed to this report.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) also collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media. Bill Lueders is at firstname.lastname@example.org.