Capitol Report: Judicial Commission files complaint; Justice Prosser asserts his innocence

2012-03-16T16:45:00Z 2012-05-22T17:37:20Z Capitol Report: Judicial Commission files complaint; Justice Prosser asserts his innocenceJESSICA VANEGEREN | The Capital Times | jvanegeren@madison.com | @JVanEgeren madison.com

Nine months after allegations first surfaced about a physical altercation involving Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and a full year after a separate incident in which Prosser called another justice a “total bitch” was made public, the Wisconsin Judicial Commission Friday filed a complaint over Prosser’s behavior.

In the complaint, filed with the state Supreme Court, the commission accuses Prosser of violating three provisions of the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct.

Prosser is the third justice to face potential discipline from his fellow court members in the last five years, all of them from the conservative bloc.

He quickly responded Friday, calling the three violations alleged in the complaint "partisan, unreasonable and largely untrue."

"They will be vigorously contested because I am innocent," Prosser said in a statement.

In its complaint, the nine-member commission states it found probable cause that Prosser violated the judicial conduct provision that says “a judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity.”

Prosser found himself under scrutiny following an incident that occurred last June 13 in Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s office. He, along with three other justices, were in Bradley’s office discussing their ruling on the highly controversial collective bargaining law. A disagreement arose over when their ruling should be released publicly.

The incident occurred the day before the court issued its 4-3 ruling upholding the controversial law to repeal most collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Bradley told investigators she told Prosser to leave her chambers, as “it was my intent and my hope when I did that that I was de-escalating the situation.”

But, Bradley alleged, instead Prosser came at her and put his hands around her neck “full circle, skin-to-skin.”

Prosser subsequently told a Dane County’s sheriff’s detective that he was approached by Bradley and “his hands came up.” He added: “Did my hand touch her neck? Yes. I admit that. Did I try to touch her neck? No … absolutely not. It was a total reflex.”

Conservatives on the court have alleged Bradley was the aggressor.

Prosser again Friday placed the blame on Bradley.

In his statement, he defended his actions, saying there would have been no physical contact between him and Bradley if she had not “suddenly and unexpectedly” charged at him from a distance of about 6 feet with her right hand in a fist.

Prosser says Bradley, by her own admission, said she intended to confront him “face to face” in what he calls his “personal space.”

Prosser also alleges Bradley did not ask him to leave her office until after, not before, the altercation, a significant disagreement between the two over how the incident played out.

“I never choked her or put her in a chokehold,” Prosser said.

Sauk County District Attorney Patricia Barrett was brought in as a special prosecutor to investigate the Bradley last year. She declined to file criminal charges.

Prosser was involved in a separate incident with Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson in February of 2010 in which he called her a “total bitch.” It was not made public until March 2011.

In its complaint, the Judicial Commission also found probable cause to believe Prosser willfully violated the section of judicial code stating “a judge must cooperate with other judges as members of a common judicial system to promote the satisfactory administration of justice.”

And the commission found probable cause that Prosser violated the conduct provision that states a judge should “participate in establishing, maintaining and enforcing high standards of conduct and shall personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary will be preserved.”

The complaint against Prosser sets up another potential round of partisan bickering among the justices, who are divided along liberal-conservative lines. Prosser is seen as one of the conservative justices, who hold a 4-3 majority.

The commission last brought charges against a sitting justice in 2010, when it filed a misconduct charge against Justice Michael Gableman over a racially charged television ad used in his 2008 campaign against  incumbent Justice Louis Butler. Justices weighing the complaint deadlocked 3-3 –- Gableman did not participate –- which meant no disciplinary action was ordered.

Justice Annette Ziegler, however, was reprimanded by her fellow justices for conflict of interest charges during her tenure as a Washington County judge.

The Judicial Commission's complaint goes to the Supreme Court, which must decide how to proceed. Investigative reports into the Prosser-Bradley altercation revealed that his fellow conservatives on the court were reluctant to blame Prosser fully in the incident, asserting some of the blame should go to Bradley for aggressive behavior.

The two incidents, along with Prosser's vote to uphold the collective bargaining law, were routinely used against him during his bid for re-election last April.

Prosser defeated his opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg, by 7,316 votes, after a recount.

The Judicial Commission contains four members appointed by the Supreme Court -- an appeals court judge, a circuit court judge and two practicing attorneys -- and five members appointed by the governor with Senate confirmation.

Prosser Friday asserted the commission has been “patently unfair in its handling of the matter” and has not been interested in discerning the truth.

“It has been committed to making a political statement,” Prosser said. “The Judicial Commission is trying to accomplish through this prosecution what some of its members failed to achieve at the ballot box.”

-- Capital Times reporter Steven Elbow contributed to this story.

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