By Bill Lueders and Kate Golden
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
On the Wisconsin Supreme Court, even the justices’ accounts of what they’ve witnessed split along ideological lines.
The court’s conservative justices gave a significantly different version of events than their liberal counterparts in their statements to Dane County sheriff’s deputies investigating a June 13 altercation between Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and David Prosser, according to reports released Friday.
The incident remains under investigation by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which is charged with enforcing judicial ethics.
On Thursday, Sauk County District Attorney Patricia Barrett concluded that, based on her review of the reports, no criminal charges would be filed.
Prosser issued a press statement saying he was “gratified that the prosecutor found these scurrilous charges were without merit.” Bradley’s statement said, “My focus from the outset has not been one of criminal prosecution, but rather addressing workplace safety.”
The justices agree that the dispute, first reported by Wisconsin Public Radio and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, erupted during a discussion over the timing of the court’s decision upholding the state’s collective bargaining law.
Released the next day, that decision was a 4-3 split, with conservative Justices Prosser, Patience Roggensack, Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman in the majority.
In their accounts of the altercation, the justices agree Prosser stated during the dispute that he had “lost confidence” in Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s leadership. Bradley told him to get out of her office and moved toward him.
Beyond that, the two sides do not concur.
Roggensack and Gableman joined Prosser in stating that Bradley rushed at Prosser with her fist raised and he reacted defensively.
“Justice Gableman said Justice Bradley’s fist was going towards and away from Justice Prosser’s face in almost a punching motion,” wrote Detective Peter Hansen in a report.
Prosser said his hands contacted Bradley’s neck but that it was inadvertent, “a total reflex.” He said that he never applied pressure to Bradley’s neck.
Bradley told deputies she “was in his face like a coach can get in the face of a player, yet did not touch him.” She insisted her hand “wasn’t in his face.”
Abrahamson said she did not see Bradley’s fist raised at any time.
Abrahamson said she saw Prosser put both his hands in Bradley’s “neck area.” And while she does not believe he squeezed, “because I didn’t see her eyes bulge or hear her gasp for a breath,” she said, “I was shocked by what I saw.”
Roggensack said she immediately got between the two justices and said, “Ann, this isn’t like you.” Others said that Roggensack pulled Bradley back.
Roggensack told deputies she thought both justices “were out of line.”
Ziegler said she was looking elsewhere and didn’t see where Prosser’s hands went. But she told deputies Bradley couldn’t have been choked because of the way she acted afterward — Bradley immediately went to her desk and started typing.
None of the justices responded to a request for comment from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. But Abrahamson, in a statement, said she was committed to improving the court environment and will propose that the court open its conferences to the public.
The reports paint the picture of a toxic workplace.
Abrahamson and Bradley said they had long feared Prosser’s unpredictable “outbursts.” Bradley told deputies that while there were many positive things about Prosser, “he needs help.”
Justice Patrick Crooks, who was not present during the altercation, told deputies that Prosser “loses his cool repeatedly.”
Bradley told deputies that Prosser’s anger had previously been directed at the chief justice, whom he had called a “bitch” in February 2010. She added that she thought Prosser was paranoid and getting worse, according to the reports.
“You never know what will set him off,” Bradley said. Abrahamson told deputies almost the exact same thing.
Prosser told deputies he had heard Bradley say her law clerk was afraid to work late because of him, but “he was concerned that she is trying to set this up and portray him as a monster, and show that he is entirely responsible for what happened.”
He said he “did not believe he did anything wrong,” and suggested to deputies that word of the incident had been leaked to do the “absolute maximum damage to a public figure that you can do.”
The records show that Bradley discussed the possibility of getting a restraining order against Prosser but decided to try to handle it internally first, convening a meeting of the justices two days after the altercation.
Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs met with the justices and produced a brief report. He wrote that Prosser at one point turned to Bradley and said, “I should not have put my hands on you.”
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.