The State Supreme Court on Thursday rejected Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson's proposals to open deliberations to the public as a route to increased civility.
The justices shot down Abrahamson's proposals by wide margins after occasionally testy discussion. They would have opened most court conferences to the public or allowed transcripts or recordings of conferences to be available at some point after the court issues written opinions.
Abrahamson was the lone justice voting in favor of opening all court conferences to the public. She and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley were the only two who voted in favor of opening to the public discussions about which cases the court would accept. And the same two justices were the lone voters favoring release of recordings or transcripts of opinion conferences at least one year following the release of written opinions.
"Well, that's not going to happen," Abrahamson said after each vote was taken.
The court's meeting adjourned late in the afternoon without addressing another of Abrahamson's proposals, to consider measures involving the recusal of justices from cases in which they may have a conflict of interest. The options in those proposals range from constitutional amendments to change the way the need for recusal is determined to a periodic refresher course in recusal for justices.
Abrahamson suggested open conferences as a way of offering greater transparency of court functions to the public, which she wrote in a memo would show the public that the court is functioning "in a collegial fashion and doing the job we were elected to do."
Abrahamson's suggestions follow a much-publicized incident at the court on June 13 in which Bradley accused Justice David Prosser of putting his hands on her neck during an argument over the court's decision on a case involving an open meetings lawsuit related to the controversial new collective bargaining law. Prosser told investigators he acted out of reflex after Bradley sharply confronted him over a remark he made about Abrahamson's leadership.
A special prosecutor declined to charge Prosser in the incident, but the case is still being investigated by the state Judicial Commission.
Other justices expressed discomfort with the idea of open conferences, saying they could chill discussions among the justices. Justice Patrick Crooks, often an ally of Abrahamson in court decisions, called the proposal "a big mistake."
"It's a little bit like the old saw about making sausage," Crooks said. "I don't think you want to see that in the Supreme Court."
The court tabled a decision on another of Abrahamson's proposals, to bring in an expert on workplace dynamics to work with the justices on collegiality. Conversation became testiest as Justices Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman asked repeatedly whether the court had ever done anything like this prior to their relatively recent arrivals on the court, sounding a skeptical tone about the proposal. Ziegler was elected to the court in 2007 and Gableman in 2008.
Justice Patience Roggensack said the proposal intimates that the court has serious problems, and those intimations are played up by media who want conflict to sell newspapers. She also took a thinly veiled shot at Bradley for making statements to the media about the alleged fracas with Prosser.
"You don't see one member of the (U.S.) Supreme Court leaking to the press something about another member," Roggensack said.
The group dynamics proposal was tabled until the court's Sept. 28 administrative conference.