MADISON, Wis. – A fight between Wisconsin's divided Supreme Court justices led Monday to a criminal investigation and calls from the governor and others to resolve long-standing differences and restore public confidence in the institution.
Liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley has accused conservative Justice David Prosser of trying to choke her during an argument in her state Capitol office on June 13, the day before the court handed down a decision upholding a new law that eliminates most public employees' collective bargaining rights. Prosser has denied the allegations.
Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney said his office opened an investigation into the incident at the request of the Capitol Police, which have jurisdiction in the building where the argument took place.
The state judicial commission, which oversees judicial conduct, also announced it had opened an investigation. The commission could ultimately make a discipline recommendation to the state Supreme Court, potentially putting some justices in a position to rule on their colleagues' fate.
Bradley declined an interview request through a court spokesman. Prosser's spokesman, Brian Nemoir, said the justice would cooperate with investigators.
"It's the best way for the facts involving this incident to be made public and an appropriate resolution to be determined," Nemoir said.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker and others expressed concern that infighting had hurt the court's reputation. Walker told Milwaukee radio station WTMJ that the justices must come to grips with their differences.
"Whether you're Republican, Democrat, liberal or conservative, there's got to be confidence that the people on the court can rationally discuss and debate," the governor said. "This is very serious, and it's got to be resolved."
Wisconsin justices are officially nonpartisan, but Bradley is generally seen as a member of the court's three-justice liberal faction. Prosser, a former Republican legislator, is considered part of the four-justice conservative majority.
Former Justice Jon Wilcox said tensions have always run high on the court, where members spend long hours hashing out polarizing legal issues. But Bradley's claim that she was choked underscores how personal the conflict has become.
Strife between the court's liberal and conservative factions has been intensifying since 2007, when special interest groups started pouring millions into judicial elections in hopes of influencing the court's ideology.
The court's liberal members are still stinging from conservative Justice Michael Gableman's 2008 defeat of liberal former Justice Louis Butler. Gableman took a bare-knuckle approach in his campaign to oust Butler, the court's first black justice.
Recently, the justices have barely been civil to each other. The court's public administrative sessions, for example, have become days-long arguments in which the justices disparage each other's management and communication styles.
Questions about Prosser's temper date back to his days as a Republican legislator. But emails surfaced in March that showed he used profanity and threatened to "destroy" Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, one of Bradley's closest friends on the court.
"In a very short period of time, we have gone from having a Supreme Court that was a national model to a Supreme Court that is really fodder for late-night comics," Howard Schweber, a political science and law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said. "We no longer view the court as being somehow above or outside the day-to-day politics. It's become just another partisan office."
Walker's collective bargaining law apparently led to the latest fight.
The measure requires most public employees to contribute more to their health care and pensions and eliminates almost all their union rights. It turned Wisconsin into the focal point of a national debate over union rights as thousands of demonstrators descended on Madison to protest the measure and deepened the divide between liberals and conservatives statewide.
The law also nearly cost Prosser his re-election after opponents threw their support behind a little-known challenger in the hope that electing a liberal justice would move the court to the left and result in the measure being overturned. Once expected to walk away with the election, Prosser was declared the winner only by about 7,000 votes after a nearly month-long recount.
Republicans pushed the court to make a decision on the law's legality by June 14, saying the savings involved was needed to address the state's budget problems. The justices were reportedly discussing the decision when the argument between Prosser and Bradley erupted.
"Regardless of who was at fault in this particular incident, the court as an institution is becoming something of a laughingstock," Schweber said. "The public confidence has been shaken, not only by this incident but by a long line of incidents."