Written by Bill Lueders, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser allegedly grabbed fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley around the neck in an argument in her chambers earlier this month, according to three knowledgeable sources.
But a different account of the incident emerged Saturday, and Prosser said the allegation “will be proven false.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted sources saying Prosser made contact with Bradley to defend himself after she charged toward him.
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 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 law to curtail collective bargaining by 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.
Prosser, contacted Friday by the Center, declined 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.
But Prosser issued a statement late Saturday saying, “Once there’s a proper review of the matter and the facts surrounding it are made clear, the anonymous claim made to the media will be proven false. Until then I will refrain from further public comment.”
Bradley declined 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 WPR, declined to comment but on Saturday he told WPR he would issue a statement Monday.
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 “we can neither confirm nor deny” the incident was under investigation.
“The commission hasn’t given me any authority to make any confirmation,” he said.
Amanda Todd, spokeswoman for the court, sent an email to the full court Friday 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 commented.
It is unclear what day the incident took place. Sources say it happened this month, before the court’s release of its ruling on the collective bargaining case. The decision was released on 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 imposed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Chapter 60 states 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 cast as a referendum on GOP Gov. Scott Walker – including the collective bargaining changes. Prosser, after a recount, defeated challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg by 7,000 votes out of nearly 1.5 million cast.
The decision was released eight days after the court heard oral arguments on the case and the day after Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, suggested the court could rule on the matter soon, adding his party intended to introduce the changes as a budget amendment the following day if the court did not act by then.
In the 4-3 decision, which held that Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi overstepped her authority in voiding the bill, Prosser sided with the majority and wrote a concurrence chastising Sumi.
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.”
In March, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that, in a disagreement over a case last year, Prosser had called Abrahamson a “total bitch” and threatened to “destroy” her.
Prosser, the paper reported, confirmed making the remarks, saying he “probably overreacted” while accusing Abrahamson and Bradley of being “masters at deliberately goading people into perhaps incautious statements.”
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 also collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media.