In allegation of Supreme Court scuffle, Wisconsin politics hits new low 

After Democratic lawmakers fled the state in an attempt to stop Governor Walker's budget bill; after pro-union protesters occupied the Capitol for weeks; after name-calling came to dominate the debate -- after all that, some observers believed Wisconsin politics could not get any uglier.

It turns out they were wrong.  Over the weekend, a Madison-based liberal journalism group reported that Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser "allegedly grabbed fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley around the neck in an argument in her chambers last week."  Prosser, a conservative, was recently re-elected in a contested election in which he was the target of an intense union-funded effort to defeat him.  The argument was said to be about the court's 4-3 decision allowing the Walker budget law, with its restrictions on organized labor, to go into effect.

The report said details of the incident were "sketchy" and came from three sources who insisted on anonymity, "citing a need to preserve professional relationships."  Neither Prosser nor Bradley commented.

The report was done by the liberal Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which was working in cooperation with Wisconsin Public Radio.  The Center recently unveiled a project, funded by the Open Society Institute, to "shine a light into the operations of Wisconsin's government."  It hired Bill Lueders, a longtime news editor and columnist for Isthmus, an alternative newspaper based in Madison, to run the project. Lueders wrote the Prosser report.

The report was posted on Saturday. It was immediately picked up by ThinkProgress, the activist arm of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.  (ThinkProgress has some of the same funding sources as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.)  "BREAKING: Wisconsin Justice Prosser 'grabbed fellow justice around the neck' prior to union bill decision," the group tweeted on Saturday afternoon.  ThinkProgress sent out more details, and within an hour or two posted an article headlined, "Four Ways Justice David Prosser Can Be Removed From Office."  The article outlined the processes involved in resignation, impeachment, removal by address, and recall, while noting that the "accused criminal," Prosser, "should not be condemned until the evidence clearly shows that he is guilty."

As the activist press was running with the story, new evidence emerged in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report to suggest the matter was more complicated than originally reported.  Whatever happened, happened during a meeting of six of the court's seven justices; in other words, there were several witnesses.  One witness supported the original accusation.  But another witness said that during a heated conversation, Bradley "charged [Prosser] with fists raised" and that Prosser had put out his own hands defensively.  According to one of the paper's sources, Bradley then accused Prosser of choking her, to which another justice reportedly replied, "You were not choked."

It turns out the Center for Investigative Journalism report was right to the extent that it said details were "sketchy."  The details turn out to be so sketchy that it is impossible to determine, at least at this point, whether the original story is accurate or not.  In a statement, Prosser told the Journal Sentinel that, "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 told the paper that, "The facts are that I was demanding that he get out of my office and he put his hands around my neck in anger in a chokehold."

Perhaps the facts of the case will become clear.  Or perhaps they will remain in dispute, despite the fact that the incident was witnessed first-hand by several accomplished jurists.  Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt the accusation comes amid a debate over the budget and union benefits that many Democrats and their allies in organized labor view as a life-or-death struggle.  Democrats, who are gearing up for recall elections against several Republican lawmakers, lost a big battle when Prosser was re-elected.  In the end, it could be that the new accusations are a continuation of that campaign by other means.

About The Author

Byron York


Byron York is the Examiner’s chief political correspondent. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He blogs throughout the week at Beltway Confidential.

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