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Court watchers say high court has hit new low

Court watchers say high court has hit new low

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Editor's note: This story about an alleged physical altercation between state Supreme Court justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley incorrectly attributed one version of the events. The claim that Bradley charged Prosser, prompting him to defend himself, was reported to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by an anonymous source. Prosser has declined to comment directly on the incident other than to say he expects the allegations that he choked Bradley "will be proven false."

They are supposed to be sober, adult and dispassionate. But recent events have legal and political experts wondering what the heck is wrong with the state Supreme Court.

Officials with the Dane County Sheriff's Office and the Wisconsin Judicial Commission are investigating allegations that Supreme Court Justice David Prosser choked colleague Ann Walsh Bradley during an argument earlier this month. Prosser has denied the charges.

But on Monday experts seemed to agree that regardless of the outcome, the physical confrontation between two justices is a sign that discord on the state's highest court has reached its highest level. 

"If this keeps up, they are going to have to start talking to each other with puppets," said Donald Downs, a UW-Madison professor of law and political science. "This kind of behavior threatens to undermine the public's respect for the rule of law."

The incident is alleged to have occurred on June 13, just prior to the Court releasing its controversial ruling on Gov. Scott Walker's measure limiting public sector collective bargaining.

According to the story first reported by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Public Radio, sources said Prosser grabbed Bradley around the neck after she tried to kick him out of her office during an argument. In a story Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted an anonymous source saying that Bradley charged Prosser, and as he raised his hands to defend himself, his hands made contact with her neck.

Neither justice responded to requests for comment from the State Journal.

Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs, who confirmed he met with members of the court following the incident, turned the investigation over to the Dane County Sheriff's Office Monday. Sheriff's office spokeswoman Elise Schaffer promised "a thorough and timely investigation."

The state Judicial Commission, a nine-member commission charged with enforcing standards of judicial behavior on and off the bench, also announced Monday that it has launched an investigation into the matter. 

Even the governor weighed in on the controversy Monday, saying the incident suggests a "huge problem" with the court.

"I think no matter what the outcome is, it can't be anything but serious," Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal. "I'm not going to tell them what to do. But I may sit down at some point with the chief justice and figure out if we should bring in some independent person to be a mediator." 

The confrontation is just the latest, ugliest, hint at the growing partisan schism on the court. 

Prosser admitted this past spring to calling Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a "total bitch" and threatening to "destroy" her. He said Abrahamson goaded him into it and accused the chief justice of sowing divisiveness on the court.

Earlier this month the Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in support of the collective bargaining bill, clearing the way for it to become law. Abrahamson, Bradley and Patrick Crooks, the liberal wing of the court, voted against the measure. The conservatives justices, Prosser, Patience Roggensack, Michael Gableman, and Annette Ziegler, supported it.

In a sharply worded dissent, Abrahamson called the four-member majority's argument "disingenuous, based on disinformation" and "lacking a reasoned, transparent analysis" with "numerous errors of law and fact." She also called conservative Prosser's concurring opinion "long on rhetoric and long on story-telling that appears to have a partisan slant." 

Observers noted that such a personal attack was unusual in the history of the court. 

"This has gotten way out of hand," said Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political science professor and former Democrat state lawmaker. "If there was some kind of AA or 12-step program for Supreme Courts, all seven justices would need to go." 

Lee served with Prosser in the Assembly. He said he remembered his former colleague as nice, a little pedantic and unfailingly polite.

The description is a little different from the one that has emerged in recent years. Former Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey resigned as honorary co-chair of Prosser's re-election campaign earlier this year and endorsed his opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg, citing what he called Prosser's "disturbing distemper and lack of civility.

And once during his time in the Assembly, Prosser became so angry with then-state Rep. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, that he charged at his colleague on the Assembly floor.

Larry Sabato, a national political expert and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said occasional outbursts and scrums of that nature are expected on the floor of the Legislature.

"That's not terribly unusual," he said. "But it is very unusual for a Supreme Court. They sit on high, in dark robes and adjudicate other people's fights. They don't fight themselves."

Added Sabato, "What's happened to Wisconsin? That is not the image everyone has of the state." 

State Journal reporter Ed Treleven contributed to this report.


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Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney effectively removed himself from the investigation into allegations of a physical altercation between state Supreme Court Justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley after questions were raised about Mahoney's objectivity because he endorsed Prosser's opponent in the recent election.

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