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Supreme Court Justice Prosser announces retirement (UPDATE)

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser posing a question to Dane County Circuit Court Representative Marie A. Stanton during a hearing at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Prosser announced his retirement Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in a news release from the court. (AP Photo/John Hart, Pool, File)

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser poses a question to Dane County Circuit Court Representative Marie Stanton during a hearing at the state Capitol in 2011. Prosser announced his retirement on Wednesday. (AP File Photo/John Hart, Pool, File)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser announced Wednesday that he plans to retire this summer, ending nearly 18 years on the court marked by a rare physical altercation with a rival justice.

Prosser, 73, said in a news release from the court that he would retire on July 31. The statement didn’t give a reason. In a letter to Gov. Scott Walker he said “the time has come to step down, pass the torch, and begin a new chapter in my life.”

Prosser didn’t immediately respond to a request for an interview The Associated Press left with court spokesman Tom Sheehan. Prosser’s former campaign manager, Brian Nemoir, said Prosser wasn’t available to talk and his news release stands.

Prosser earned his law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school in 1968. He served in the state Assembly from 1979 through 1996 as a Republican, working alongside Walker during the governor’s stint as a state representative in the 1990s. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson appointed Prosser to the high court in 1998. He was elected to a 10-year term in 2001 and re-elected in 2011.

The seven-member court is officially nonpartisan and Prosser has described himself as an unpredictable moderate on the campaign trail. Still, he’s widely regarded as part of a conservative-leaning majority that has controlled the court since 2008. The conservatives have been locked in an ugly feud with liberal-leaning justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley ever since; the dust-ups with them raised questions about Prosser’s temper.

Emails show that in February 2010 he called Abrahamson a “bitch” and threatened to “destroy” her as the justices were debating a request from defense attorneys to remove Justice Mike Gableman, another member of the conservative bloc, from a criminal case. He said the liberals goaded him into the remarks.

The following year Prosser placed his hands around Bradley’s throat during an argument in chambers over the timing of the release of a divided Supreme Court decision upholding Walker’s signature law restricting public workers’ collective bargaining rights. Prosser contended that he inadvertently touched her neck in self-defense after Bradley charged him.

Prosser told investigators that he could feel the warmth of Bradley’s skin beneath his hands but he didn’t apply any pressure. Bradley said Prosser didn’t actually choke her and a special prosecutor ultimately decided not to file charges against either of them.

The state Judicial Commission recommended the justices find Prosser guilty of ethics violations in connection with the incident. The discipline case died after Prosser’s allies on the court — Gableman, Annette Ziegler and Pat Roggensack — recused themselves from the case, leaving the seven-justice court short of a quorum on the issue.

Bradley declined to comment on Prosser’s retirement. Abrahamson said in an email that she wishes Prosser well and “his opinions and way with words will long be remembered.”

Walker has the power to appoint a successor to finish Prosser’s term, which ends in 2021. The successor will have to stand for election in 2020. Appointees must stand for election as soon as possible but under state law only one incumbent justice can run for re-election each year. Ziegler is up in 2017, Gableman in 2018 and Abrahamson in 2019.

The governor issued a statement Wednesday evening saying it was a pleasure serving in the Assembly with Prosser and thanking him for faithfully serving the state for decades.

“His service to Wisconsinites extended beyond the bench,” Walker said.

Prosser joined with the three other conservatives last summer to halt Milwaukee prosecutors’ investigation into Walker’s gubernatorial recall campaign. The prosecutors alleged that the campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups on advertising. The conservatives found the groups and campaign legally coordinated on so-called issue advocacy.

At least three of the groups named in the probe spent millions to support the court’s conservatives. The lead prosecutor asked both Prosser and Gableman to recuse themselves from the case but they declined. Prosser acknowledged some groups under investigation had helped his campaign but their spending happened years ago.

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