| Todd Klassy

Wisconsin high court justices bicker bitterly -- in written decisions

Wisconsin’s newest Supreme Court justice has struck back against repeated criticism by a fellow jurist, the latest in a remarkable dispute played out on the pages of judgments delivered by the state’s highest court.

Justice Rebecca Bradley, appointed to the court by Gov. Scott Walker last October and then elected to a full 10-year term last month, defended her involvement in delivering judgments in cases pending prior to her joining the bench. She made the defense in a judgment published Thursday.

Bradley, joined by the court’s chief justice, denounced Justice Shirley Abrahamson for using published decisions to provide outside opponents ammunition to “attack and criticize me.”

The dispute reveals the deep animosity that exists on both a political and personal level within the state, where Republicans now control the governorship and both houses of the Wisconsin State Legislature. The Supreme Court has an effective 5-2 conservative majority.

Abrahamson, until last year the chief justice, and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley are the remaining liberals.

This latest development in the dispute was revealed with the publication of the court's judgment in the case of a parent fighting for custody of her child. The majority ruled the woman should not have custody.

But much of the 26-page judgment overturning an appeals court ruling, and the dissent, was taken up not with discussion of the merits of the case, but arguments and pointed back-and-forth criticism of each other.

The arguments turned on Bradley’s involvement in three cases pending before she was appointed following the death of Justice N. Patrick Crooks in September 2015.

Abrahamson wrote that the cases should have been re-argued and Bradley should not have delivered judgment on them. She argued that Wisconsin should follow the rules of the U.S Supreme Court, where cases are re-argued if a justice dies during the term. 

This is third time Abrahamson has criticized, in published decisions, Bradley’s involvement in deciding cases. In her dissent, she referenced not just the case they were judging, but also previous ones.

Bradley, writing the majority opinion, went on the attack. She argued it was within the rules that she was involved in the pending judgments and that she had fully researched the cases and watched the full proceedings.

She said her fellow justice’s writings “were not about documenting for future courts how to properly handle pending cases when a justice dies mid-term and a new justice joins the court.”

Bradley said Abrahamson’s inclusion of allegations made in a separate case is “entirely inappropriate and serves only one purpose: to give others material — within a published Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, no less — to attack and criticize me.”

She added: “(It) contributes nothing to any legitimate function of the court and serves only to perpetuate the diminished reputation of Wisconsin's highest court, which my other colleagues and I are striving to restore.”

Chief Justice Patience Drake Roggensack, concurring with the majority opinion written by Bradley, wrote that she wanted to address “Abrahamson's practice of lending the prestige of her judicial office to further private interests.”

“Justice Abrahamson's writings repeatedly omit important facts well known to her. They are attached to court decisions in which her assaults on Justice Rebecca Bradley are not relevant to legal issues presented to the court for decision,” Roggensack wrote.

The chief justice zeroed in on Abrahamson’s claim that Wisconsin should follow the rules of the U.S. Supreme Court, suggesting Abrahamson knows full well that Wisconsin decided not to adopt those rules.

“Because Justice Abrahamson has omitted important facts from her separate writings that were well known to her when she personally attacked Justice Rebecca Bradley, and because her attacks immediately preceded the election of a justice to our court, it appears that Justice Abrahamson is using the prestige of her judicial office to further private interests,” Roggensack said.

Abrahamson wrote that the question of a new justice's participation in cases upon his or her appointment “should, we hope, be approached by the court and the justices in a descriptive, analytical and historical manner, free from divisiveness or offensive posturing, personal attacks and false accusations.”

“Engaging in, or responding to, such personal attacks and accusations neither sheds light on the inquiry before us nor promotes public trust and confidence in the court.” she wrote.

Wisconsin's Supreme Court will see another change this year, as Justice David Prosser has announced he is stepping down July 31. It will not change the balance of the court, as Republican Gov. Walker will appoint a replacement.

A highly respected jurist, Prosser was involved in some controversies, particularly involving Abrahamson and Bradley.

In 2010, he admitted calling the then-Chief Justice Abrahamson a "total bitch" and threatened to "destroy" her. He said he over-reacted after being goaded.

And during closed-door discussions over the divisive issue of public employee collective bargaining, Bradley accused him of putting his hands around her neck. Others in the room claimed she flew at him and he was defending himself.