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Reports show animosity between Supreme Court justices

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices David T. Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley consider oral arguments during a hearing on the state's budget bill at the state Capitol in Madison recently. A prosecutor said Thursday that Prosser won't face criminal charges over allegations he choked Bradley. (AP File Photo/John Hart, Pool)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A liberal state Supreme Court justice told detectives a conservative colleague put his hands on her neck but never applied pressure, while he claims he was simply trying to ward her off as she charged him with a clenched fist, according to investigative reports released Friday.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley has accused Justice David Prosser of putting her in a chokehold in front of four other justices during a June discussion about a lawsuit challenging Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s contentious law eliminating most public workers’ union rights. The incident exposed the depth of the animosity that has existed for years between the court’s liberal and conservative blocs.

Sauk County District Attorney Patricia Barrett, who is acting as a special prosecutor in the case, announced Thursday she wouldn’t file criminal charges against either Walsh Bradley or Prosser, saying the accounts of what happened differed too greatly.

The Dane County Sheriff’s Department, which conducted the investigation, released 117 pages of reports that indicate exactly that. Prosser doesn’t dispute his hands were on Walsh Bradley’s neck, but he insists it was only a reflex and Walsh Bradley said she never felt him squeeze.

Prosser’s spokesman, Brian Nemoir, declined to comment on the investigation. Responding to a request for comment from the other justices, court spokeswoman Amanda Todd said she hadn’t heard from any of them except Walsh Bradley, who stands by a statement she made Thursday saying she was more concerned about workplace safety than a prosecution.

According to the reports, Walsh Bradley told investigators she and Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, one of Walsh Bradley’s closest friends and another member of the liberal bloc, were in Walsh Bradley’s chambers at the state Capitol on June 13 when Prosser and the rest of the four-justice conservative faction entered. Prosser wanted the chief justice to issue a press release saying the court would issue a decision in the union rights case the next day.

The conservatives were under intense pressure to get the decision out. The legal challenge had kept the law from taking effect and Republican lawmakers were considering passing the provisions as part of the state budget, risking another firestorm of opposition over a plan that had already generated massive protests in Madison. The justices had been scrambling for days to prepare their opinion and dissents.

Walsh Bradley, 61, said Prosser accused the liberals of holding up the decision and told Abrahamson he had no confidence in her leadership.

Walsh Bradley said she got up and walked toward Prosser, saying, “Buddy, don’t raise your voice again. I’m no longer willing to put up with this.” She said she got face-to-face with him, pointed at her door and told him to get out.

Prosser, 68, then grabbed her by the neck in what she called a chokehold, but she said she didn’t remember Prosser squeezing or applying any pressure. Justice Patience Roggensack separated them.

Walsh Bradley’s husband told detectives she came home that night in tears, and they discussed getting a restraining order against Prosser. She told detectives Prosser “needs help.”

Prosser told detectives that Walsh Bradley doesn’t like him and that she “exploded” out of her inner office and charged at him with her fist when he questioned Abrahamson’s leadership.

He said when he leaned away from Walsh Bradley, his arms came up automatically and his hands touched her neck. His said his first thought was, “Oh my God, I’m touching her neck.”

He said he remembered how warm her neck felt, but he never applied any pressure. After the two were separated, he said he went “limp” and left.

The court issued a 4-3 decision the next day upholding the union law. Prosser, as expected, voted with the conservative majority to preserve the law.

The other justices split along ideological lines in their accounts of what happened in Walsh Bradley’s office, just as they do on almost every major court opinion.

The conservatives defended Prosser. They said he never choked Walsh Bradley, who they claimed has anger issues of her own.

Conservative Justice Michael Gableman told detectives Walsh Bradley once hit him in the back of the head after he addressed Abrahamson as “Shirley” instead of “chief.”

He said Walsh Bradley came at Prosser with a clenched fist and even jabbed the air in front of his face three or four times. Prosser tried to push her away by placing his hands on her shoulders, near her neck, he said.

“To say that Prosser choked her is bizarre,” Gableman said.

Roggensack, another conservative, said both Prosser and Walsh Bradley were out of line, but Prosser didn’t choke Walsh Bradley.

The liberals, meanwhile, painted Prosser as an angry man who could snap at any moment.

Abrahamson, who insisted Wash Bradley never touched Prosser, said he is prone to outbursts and no one knows what might set him off.

Justice Patrick Crooks, seen as the court’s swing vote, told detectives he wasn’t in the office when the incident took place, but he finds Prosser intimidating. Prosser once called him a “viper,” pounds his fists on tables, storms out of meetings three or four times a year and once said all judges and police in Dane County are corrupt, he said.

“It’s like he’s paranoid or something,” Crooks said.

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