With the Wisconsin Supreme Court devolving into a storyline only Vince McMahon could love, rumors are still swirling about what actually happened when two justices engaged in a physical confrontation behind closed doors on June 13. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley claims Justice David Prosser “choked” her. Prosser denies he choked Bradley, and claims she initiated physical contact. In the past two days, multiple sources with first-hand knowledge of the incident have been able to provide more details as to what exactly happened behind closed chamber doors.
The week before the legislature was set to re-pass the collective-bargaining provision, three of the four conservative justices were ready to issue a ruling reinstating the union law as originally passed. Prosser, on the other hand, wanted to wait longer, to avoid the appearance that the court was rushing their decision through. Prosser thought he had an agreement with liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson to delay release of the opinion until Tuesday of the following week.
As Monday arrived, there was no word from Abrahamson on whether the decision would be issued the next day. At 5:30 p.m., Prosser and the other conservative justices marched around the chambers, looking for Abrahamson, who was found in Justice Bradley’s office. Prosser stood outside Bradley’s door, talking to the justices in Bradley’s office. The discussion got heated, with Prosser expressing his lack of faith in Abrahamson’s ability to lead the Court.
According to one witness, Bradley charged toward Prosser, shaking her clenched fist in his face. Another source says they were “literally nose to nose.” Prosser then put his hands up to push her away. As one source pointed out, if a man wants to push a woman who is facing him, he wouldn’t push her in the chest (unless he wants to face an entirely different criminal charge). Consequently, Prosser put his hands on Bradley’s shoulders to push her away, and in doing so, made contact with her neck.
At that moment, another justice approached Bradley from behind and pulled her away from Prosser, saying, “Stop it, Ann, this isn’t like you.” Bradley then shouted, “I was choked!” Another justice present replied, “You were not choked.” In a statement following the incident, Bradley maintained Prosser “put his hands around my neck in anger in a chokehold.”
On Monday night, Bradley called Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs to talk to him about the incident. On the morning of Wednesday, June 15, Tubbs joined the justices in a closed-door meeting, where he discussed “issues relating to workplace violence.”
During the meeting, Chief Justice Abrahamson actually reenacted the incident on Chief Tubbs — no doubt an amusing sight, as the diminutive Abrahamson mimicked choking the tall, portly police chief. During her demonstration, Abrahamson emphasized that Prosser had exerted “pressure” on Bradley’s throat.
“There was no pressure,” interrupted the justice who had initially broken up the incident between Bradley and Prosser. “That’s only because you broke us apart,” shot back Bradley. This exchange led several meeting attendees to believe Bradley was making up the charge, as they took her rejoinder as an admission that there was no pressure applied to her neck.
During the Wednesday meeting, Bradley urged the justices present to take a vote on whether Prosser should be forced into anger-management counseling. The threat was implicit — if they didn’t vote her way, she would be forced to “take the next step” against Prosser, which they took to mean filing a restraining order against him. The other justices balked, wondering whether they even had the authority to order Prosser into any type of counseling. Some thought it would be “demeaning” to Prosser to have to go to counseling when he had done nothing wrong. In the end, Bradley realized she didn’t have enough justices on her side and no vote was taken.
Speculation is abundant as to why Bradley decided to forgo a criminal complaint against Prosser, deciding instead to go to the press ten days after the event. Some say Bradley’s complaint wouldn’t have stood up if given the scrutiny of a criminal investigation. Furthermore, others speculate that if any formal criminal proceedings had moved forward (a restraining-order filing, for instance), Prosser would be afforded evidentiary hearings, testimony, and discovery.
Furthermore, sources unanimously believed that it was Shirley Abrahamson who has been the impetus behind the story, managing the press operation from behind the scenes. Justices had been working together regularly since the incident without any signs of rancor until Abrahamson decided to make this an issue, sources believe.
While Bradley has not filed any charges against Prosser, an investigation was initiated by the Capitol Police, who then quickly turned the case over to the Dane County Sheriff, David Mahoney — who once actually appeared in a campaign ad supporting the reelection of Chief Justice Abrahamson. The ad also included not-yet-famous circuit-court judge Maryann Sumi, whose ruling the Supreme Court had to vacate in order to allow Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining bill to stand.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been amended since its original posting.