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Supreme Court justices agree to play nice 

Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson listens to arguments recently. Abrahamson has put forth suggestions to help repair the court's image. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s Supreme Court justices pledged Wednesday to work together in a collegial fashion, though some only reluctantly agreed to what was arguably the most toothless suggestion put forth by a chief justice hoping to repair the court’s reputation as divided and dysfunctional.

Several justices said the pledge wasn’t necessary because they already work well together most of the time. But in the end they all agreed to the proposal, which comes after a number of high-profile squabbles including a physical altercation this summer between two justices.

Many recent court decisions have also been returned along the same 4-3 lines, with four conservative-leaning justices on one side and two liberal-leaning judges and a swing vote on the other. The decisions have contributed to a sense of a perpetually divided court.

The collegiality proposal was one of seven suggestions put forth by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson to help repair the court’s image. Ultimately, after some back-and-forth over the specific wording, the justices agreed to adopt this one-line pledge: “We duly affirm our commitment to collegiality and collaboration in the manner we work together the bulk of the time.”

The court’s conservative bloc has openly feuded with the liberal faction, generally seen as Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley, for years. The tensions boiled over in June, when Walsh Bradley accused Justice David Prosser of choking her after she ordered him out of her office.

Prosser claimed that Walsh Bradley charged at him in an angry rush and that he raised his hands reflexively. A prosecutor said last month that neither Walsh Bradley nor Prosser would face criminal charges.

After the altercation and its high-profile fallout, Abrahamson offered seven proposals intended to regain the public’s trust.

Two weeks ago, the justices killed those of her proposals designed to increase transparency, including opening their case deliberations to the public. On Wednesday, they also shot down the idea of bringing in an expert on small-group dynamics to help them resolve their conflicts more constructively.

Abrahamson said adopting the pledge was important because when people publicly promise to do something they work hard to uphold their word.

But Prosser said it was “fairly meaningless” to enact a pledge because the public would judge them on their actions, not their words. He also said a pledge could be used against a justice, either by his or her colleagues or by third parties looking to discredit a justice.

“If I disagree with someone, then someone says, ‘Oh, there goes Justice Prosser violating collegiality,'” he said.

Justices Patrick Crooks, Mike Gableman and Annette Ziegler said the justices are already collegial most of the time. They insisted that the wording of the statement reflect that.

Mike McCabe, the director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said he didn’t think the pledge would make much of a difference. He said the public’s confidence has been badly shaken and that the justices needed more than a pledge to make the concern go away.

“The fact that they weren’t able to agree on any of the more substantive measures is not a good sign,” he said. “(The pledge) is a step but ultimately it’s a meager step.”

The justices voted on the pledge by a show of hands. Six justices raised their hands immediately, but Prosser paused and looked at the ceiling before slowly raising his hand.

Abrahamson, seeing his hesitation, joked that the justices adopted the proposal with six votes “and one additional vote.”

Prosser didn’t seem amused.

“Is this is in the spirit of what we just adopted?” he asked.

Abrahamson apologized and said the justices adopted the proposal in seven votes.

Afterward the justices discussed another Abrahamson proposal, one that seemed to raise distrust from at least one colleague and put their collegiality pledge to the test right away.

The chief justice wanted to adopt a measure declaring that four justices not be considered a quorum unless their meeting was previously listed on the court calendar. She said she wants to avoid a hypothetical situation in which four justices reach some sort of decision on their own and then insist the chief justice implement it.

Ziegler said she didn’t understand where the proposal was coming from. Abrahamson declined to elaborate on any incident where the situation may have arisen in the past, saying she preferred to look forward. She did hint at previous email communications, then said the important concern is that the justices judge the proposal on its merits.

A brief conversation ensued. As hints of tension became evident, Justice Patience Roggensack asked for and received a 10 minute break. Afterward, she offered only a brief comment.

“I know you’ve got something in mind. You’re sitting there smiling,” she told Abrahamson tersely. “I’m not fond of being blindsided and that’s what’s happening here.”

The proposal was tabled without a vote.

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