The chokehold Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser allegedly put on fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley reminded me again that who you are often matters more than what you do in this American system of justice.

Pretend for a moment that Prosser and Bradley were a couple of 18-year-olds who work the food-prep line at McDonald's and have a standing disagreement about the amount of special sauce that should be applied to a Big Mac. Prosser thinks Bradley's sauce use is too liberal; Bradley thinks Prosser's too conservative.

One day, the dispute boils over and Bradley demands Prosser leave her area and Prosser briefly puts his hands around her neck. Each blames the other for taking their differences to a physical level.

What would happen next? Both would probably be fired, the police would probably be called, a brief investigation would probably ensue and one or both would probably be charged with a misdemeanor — all within hours of the incident.

And if a reporter cared enough about two 18-year-olds fighting over Big Macs, she could call the police department that same day and probably get the names, ages and hometowns of everyone involved, as well as a brief description of the incident.

Not so when it comes to the formerly vaunted sphere of the state Supreme Court.

There, when a couple of coworkers have a physical altercation, the public hears about it two weeks later through sources who decline to provide their names out of a "need to preserve professional relationships," according to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. (Note to sources: Once your coworkers resort to violence at work, you are no longer in relationships with professionals.)

Law enforcement was similarly close-lipped. About the only thing we knew about its response is that Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs reportedly met with the entire court — an unusual move given that police in an ongoing investigation typically interview witnesses, suspects and victims individually.

I understand the need for police to keep the details of an investigation quiet until they recommended charges. I understand that in order to maintain impartiality — or at least the perception thereof, and there's not even much of that for the Supreme Court these days — judges shouldn't say a lot publicly. I understand the tendency of highly placed government officials to worry about the political ramifications of their words.

But if what we have here is another instance of workplace violence — of which there were nearly 573,000 nation-wide in 2009, according to federal statistics — then all the foot-dragging, deferential treatment and secrecy just serves to reinforce the notion that there is one system of justice for the elite and one for the rest of us.

And that's just as disturbing as having a Supreme Court that appears to have gone completely berserk.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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