No criminal charges will be filed in an alleged fracas between two state Supreme Court justices in June as the court was deciding to uphold the controversial collective bargaining law, a special prosecutor said Thursday.
The incident involving Justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley prompted a call Thursday by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson for court conferences to be open to the public — an extreme move that former judges said would be unprecedented and problematic but might help restore civility and public confidence in the troubled court.
Sauk County District Attorney Patricia Barrett, acting as special prosecutor in the case, said she found no basis to file criminal charges against Prosser or Bradley. Bradley, a member of the court's liberal wing, had said Prosser put her in a "chokehold" after she told him to leave her office on June 13. Prosser, a former Republican legislator, has denied the allegation.
Barrett, a Republican, told the Associated Press that accounts from other justices who witnessed the apparent altercation varied but declined to elaborate.
The Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which enforces standards of judicial conduct, also is investigating the incident.
In a statement released by his campaign spokesman, Prosser said Bradley "made the decision to sensationalize" the incident. "I was confident the truth would come out — and it did," Prosser said. "I am gratified that the prosecutor found these scurrilous charges were without merit."
Bradley, in a statement issued by the court, said the matter "is and remains an issue of workplace safety."
"My focus from the outset has not been one of criminal prosecution," she said. "I well understand the difficulty of gaining any criminal conviction. The prosecution's burden of proof is very heavy, as it should be."
Bradley said she contacted law enforcement the night of the incident for "assistance to try to have the entire court address informally this workplace safety issue that has progressed over the years."
Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs asked the Dane County Sheriff's Office to investigate the incident.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, asked that a special prosecutor be appointed to decide if criminal charges should be filed because of his role in bringing an open meetings lawsuit that was connected to the incident.
The Wisconsin State Journal has filed a request for the records of the investigation under the state's open records law. The Sheriff's Office was still going through those records Thursday to see if they contained any information not subject to release.
Openness a path to civility?
Abrahamson said in a statement, "Each justice owes the others and the people of the state civility and personal control in our language, demeanor, and temperament in the conference room and on and off the bench. To promote these ends, I will propose to the court at the start of the new term that the presumption will be that court conferences are open to the public."
Currently, only administrative conferences dealing with budgetary and similar matters are open to the public. Conferences in which justices discuss and decide cases are closed.
"My initial reaction is ... 'Wow,'" retired appellate court judge Neal Nettesheim said of Abrahamson's plan. "That is truly revolutionary."
But Nettesheim and former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske said such a move — akin to allowing the public into the jury room — could have a chilling effect on deliberations by justices, who often change their minds before a decision is final.
"There are serious problems with it," Geske said.
She and Nettesheim both doubted a majority of justices would go along with the measure, but said they could see why Abrahamson would propose it.
"The problems in the Supreme Court have obviously exacerbated," Geske said. "There has to be a safe workplace and respectful workplace."
Geske noted that such an administrative change would likely be debated in a court conference open to the public.
Nettesheim said the alleged incident shows "the dysfunction within the Supreme Court" that has other judges in the state concerned.
"The problems on the court go far deeper than this single episode," said Nettesheim, who called on all of the justices "to take a long, deep, hard, critical look" at themselves and "to try to repair the damage" and restore the court's reputation.