Statements made by Wisconsin's seven Supreme Court Justices to Dane County sheriff's deputies investigating Justice David Prosser allegedly "choking" fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley on June 13 describe a dysfunctional court and hostile work environment.
The alleged choking incident took place on Monday, June 13, the evening before the court issued its controversial 4-3 opinion upholding Governor Walker's contentious collective bargaining bill. The report on the investigation was released by the Dane County Sheriff's office on Friday following an announcement by Special Prosecutor Patricia Barrett that she would be filing no criminal charges. While Justice Prosser took the prosecutor's announcement as a vindication, Justice Bradley emphasized that "my focus from the outset has not been one of criminal prosecution, but rather addressing workplace safety."
Hostile Work Environment, but Not Criminal
The statements Justices gave in the report painted Prosser as contributing to a hostile work environment. Reference is made to Prosser calling Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a "bitch" in February and threatening to "destroy her," an issue during Prosser's recent reelection campaign. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson noted that she became concerned about her personal safety after Prosser began focusing on her during his recent reelection, and the Court Marshall instructed Abrahamson to lock her doors at night as a precaution.
Justice N. Patrick Crooks said that Prosser "loses his cool repeatedly," getting red and pounding on tables during meetings, and that he "explodes and storms out of a room" approximately three to four times a year. Crooks noted that Prosser had called him a "viper" and feels he has to "walk on eggshells" because he does "not want to trigger an explosion or set him off."
Justice Michael Gableman, a member of the court's conservative wing, spoke more carefully, saying Prosser sometimes talks "outside the tenor of his voice" and that the Justice gets angry when he thinks somebody is "going to get the shaft." Justice Annette Ziegler, also a conservative, described the work environment as "weird."
The report includes a letter Bradley wrote to the other attorneys on June 28 stating that, in an ordinary workplace where co-workers were not elected officials, Prosser's behavior would not be tolerated. She writes that if she went to an employment law attorney and "I told the attorney of episodes of shouting and out-of-control behavior including threats, and then if I told my employment law attorney that then [a co-worker] put his hands around my throat," she wrote, "there is not an employment attorney that would think it is OK."
He Said, She Said
The Justices provided different descriptions of the alleged "choking" incident that gave rise to the investigation.
Prosser said "I remember putting my hands on her neck" in a "blocking move" he called "a total reflex" after he perceived Bradley "charg[ing] at me" with a raised fist.
Bradley said that she walked towards Prosser demanding he leave her office, and her hand was in the air not to strike Prosser, but to point towards the door. Bradley wrote in her notes on the incident that she "was in his face like a coach can get in the face of a player," but that she expected he would "back away" or at worst to "shove [her] away."
"To put both hands around my neck was a bit eerie," she wrote.
Justice Roggensack understood Bradley's hand to not be motioning towards the door, but moving towards Prosser's face, and stepped between the two to intervene. "Ann, this isn't like you," she said at the time, but later told deputies she thought both Justices were out of line.
In Bradley's notes after the incident, she expressed concern that the four-justice conservative majority would "circle the wagons" to protect Prosser. All four justices offered very consistent accounts.
Justice Gableman was the most generous, telling deputies Prosser's hands were only "on the area where the shoulders meet the neck," despite the fact that Prosser admitted placing both hands around Bradley's throat, and that no justices corrected Bradley when she repeatedly used the term "chokehold" in meetings with the Justices (Roggensack also questioned whether Prosser's hands were on Bradley's neck).
According to Gableman's recollection, Prosser's action were "imminently reasonable," and that he recalled Bradley being taller than Prosser. Gableman told Sheriff's deputies he remembered Bradley hovering over Prosser in a manner that brought to mind a famous photo of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson hovering over a smaller senator.
Reports state Prosser has six inches and 34 pounds on Bradley -- Prosser is 5-feet-9-inches tall and weighs 165 pounds, and Bradley is 5-feet-3-inches and weighs 131.
As elected officials, typical workplace rules and procedures do not apply to the Supreme Court Justices. The report indicates that the Court's human resources officer, Margaret Brady, told Bradley "I am powerless. I am dealing with elected officials," but did believe the incident mirrored domestic violence and recommended Justice Bradley pursue a restraining order against Prosser. The Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which oversees judicial ethics rules, is still investigating the incident.