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Sunday, July 13, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Emily's Post: Wisconsin Supreme Court throttles its own credibility, respect for recalls

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Stranglehold on Wisconsin

So it's come to this.

Ever since news first broke about the allegations that Justice David Prosser had tried to choke fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley I've been vacillating between horror at the idea that anyone, let alone a Supreme Court Justice, could resort to such violence -- and dismay over the amount of victim blaming done in almost knee-jerk fashion by individuals looking to defend Prosser for partisan purposes.

Something nasty happened in Justice Bradley's chambers -- that much, I think, cannot be disputed at this point, and both the Dane County Sheriff's office and the stateJudicial Commission (PDF) are now investigating it. Multiple sources, both those defending Justice Prosser and those alleging his misconduct, seem to agree that there was an altercation of some sort. Bradley has come out with a statement confirming it.

The devil, then, is in the details.

Did Prosser try to choke Bradley? Did Bradley attack Prosser first? Did they both lash out or just one? And if Bradley did raise her fists at Prosser does that give him any excuse to have then put his hands around her neck?

Prosser himself issued a statement simply insisting that, "Once there's a proper review of the matter and the facts surrounding it are made clear, the anonymous claim made to the media will be proven false."

Which anonymous claim and which specific part of it? That there was an altercation at all? That he put Bradley into a stranglehold that was "in no way playful," or that Prosser was simply raising his hands to defend himself against Bradley charging toward him?

It should be noted that the latter allegation -- which surfaced after the initial WCIJ report when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel went looking for information -- also came from sources that wished to remain unnamed. It also fueled the fires of victim blaming amongst Prosser supporters.

One of the more vocal among them is blogger and UW Law School professor Ann Althouse, who has gone to great and terrible lengths to excuse the alleged behavior, attack the credibility of only the anonymous sources with whom she disagrees, suggest that no arrests (yet) mean no wrongdoing, impugn the honor of Justice Bradley, and cast doubt on the very justice system of this state.

I won't go into why Althouse's arguments are wrong -- someone has already done a far, far better job of it than I ever could -- but her writings on the matter provide a fairly good overview of what so many Prosser supporters are now arguing.

What it comes down to is this: We already have documentation of Prosser's temper, especially in regards to his treatment of his fellow (female) Justices. He called Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a "total bitch" and threatened to "destroy her" during an argument over whether or not to remove Justice Michael Gableman from a criminal case they were about to hear.

The court eventually split 3-3 over the case -- brought by a lawyer who argued that "the actions of Gableman and his supporters during the justice's 2008 campaign indicate a bias toward the 'prosecutorial arm of state government' and preclude him from being able to impartially decide criminal cases that come to the court."

Prosser issued a non-apology over the threats, saying, "I probably overreacted, but I think it was entirely warranted... They are masters at deliberately goading people into perhaps incautious statements. This is bullying and abuse of very, very long standing."

But even if that were true, it's still not an excuse to verbally threaten and/or physically abuse someone. There are no excuses for that, frankly, and it's even more unsettling to hear feeble attempts at them coming from a person who is supposed to be one of the foremost legal and constitutional authorities in the state.

The highest court in the state is in trouble, folks, and that means we are, too.

How is anyone, of any political stripe, supposed to have faith in our justice system if this is the level of discourse and deliberation that can be expected?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Something needs to change. I don't know if that means doing away with the election of judges in favor of some kind of merit-based selection system (either by the governor, a panel of experts, or whatever). I'd prefer we stick with choosing the justices for ourselves, but then we'd need to ensure that partisanship and big donor dollars weren't the major deciding factors in that choice -- rather, we should be seeing races between candidates with lengthy and solid judicial, legal, constitutional backgrounds.

The system is so muddy right now, though, that I can't personally see a good way to clean it up -- which is a dispiriting realization, to say the least. Combine that with the fact that some folks seem to think there are valid excuses for choking a co-worker, and you can color me a sad panda today.

Maybe we need an entirely new court -- all new justices, to remove the deep stains now present -- but chances of that happening are slim to none, given how rare the impeachment of even one justice is. So what, then? How do we rebuild an effective system that we can once again trust?

Taking politics out of the court would be a fine starting point.

(Another excellent take on that is here. -h/t Illusory Tenant)


The Wisconsin State Journal on Sunday published an editorial criticizing the recall elections being held this summer (and the hoped-for recall of Gov. Walker early next year). So many recalls, they argue, create "endless electioneering that distracts and polarizes the state while discouraging hard-working public servants from seeking office."

The editorial goes on to agree that while our judicial elections have become "nasty, money-soaked" affairs, we shouldn't get our undies in a bunch if one member maybe chokes another (although they ignore this entirely and suggest that the only reason people are now talking impeachment of Justice Prosser is because he sided with the narrow majority in the decision regarding passage of Walker's anti-union bill -- which is not entirely true).

"...the will of the people must be respected," they write. "They have chosen their leaders, for better or for worse. Those leaders need time to serve the citizens who elected them."

What if the recalls are the will of the people, too? Simply finding so many recalls distasteful doesn't mean they're wrong. Folks have a right to change their mind, especially after everything that's come down since the last round of elections: the stripping of collective bargaining rights, meetings and votes that broke the law, massive cuts to education and health care services, even attacks on our craft brewers.

Let us not forget, too, that certain of the recall targets haven't exactly proven to be upstanding citizens, either.

People are mad for a whole host of reasons and the State Journal editorial simply trivializes them all. They're free to do so, of course -- freedom of the press! And we have the freedom to call them out when they're wrong -- which in this case, they most certainly are.

Fellow opinion writer Chris Walker has more on why these recalls matter here.

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