As the legislation ending collective bargaining rights for state employees in Wisconsin comes into effect, the process of getting constitutional legitimacy for the law has produced extreme tensions within the judiciary. Narrowly re-elected Supreme Court Justice David Prosser expressed this by physically attacking fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in a heated argument on June 13. “The facts are that I was demanding that he get out of my office and he put his hands around my neck in anger in a chokehold,” Bradley told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The immediate cause of the argument was the pressure exerted by the Wisconsin legislature to resolve the legal challenge to their budget bill. Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald had stated that the Wisconsin Republicans would introduce the changes as a budget amendment if the court did not act quickly.
Prosser and the three other conservative judges on the Supreme Court arrived at Bradley’s office concerned about delays in issuing the decision, voted on a few days previously. The encounter grew heated, according to the Sentinel: “Bradley asked Prosser to leave, but he did not and the justices continued to argue. Abrahamson said she did not know when her [dissenting] opinion would be ready, saying it might take a month. Prosser then told Abrahamson – with whom he has often clashed publicly and privately – he’d lost faith in her leadership. Bradley got close to Prosser and again demanded that he leave, with some sources saying she charged at him with her fists raised.”
The opinion was in fact released the following day, only eight days after the court had heard oral arguments in the case. The court ruled 4-3 on ideological lines in support of the collective bargaining bill, clearing the way for it to become law.
This is not the first time that Prosser had clashed with Bradley and Abrahamson. In March, it was reported that “As the deeply divided state Supreme Court wrestled over whether to force one member off criminal cases last year, Justice David Prosser exploded at Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson behind closed doors, calling her a ‘bitch’ and threatening to ‘destroy’ her.” “I probably overreacted,” Prosser said later, admitting the incident, “but I think it was entirely warranted. They are masters at deliberately goading people into perhaps incautious statements.”
But the recent outburst was about more than mercurial personalities. As an editorial in the progressive “Cap Times” comments, Prosser and the conservative majority made “an unprecedented reinterpretation of the state’s open meetings law that said rules requiring official transparency and accessibility do not apply to the Legislature. Only by gutting the open meetings law could the court’s conservative majority rule that the Legislature’s passage of Walker’s plan, which did not follow open meetings requirements, was legitimate.”
Abrahamson, as the senior jurist on the court, made a stinging criticism of the ruling. In her dissenting opinion, she wrote: “The order and Justice Prosser’s concurrence are based on errors of fact and law. They inappropriately use this court’s original jurisdiction, make their own findings of fact, mischaracterize the parties’ arguments, misinterpret statutes, minimize (if not eliminate) Wisconsin constitutional guarantees, and misstate case law, appearing to silently overrule case law dating back to at least 1891.”
The legal arguments in the ruling, and Prosser’s concurrence, “are clearly disingenuous, based on disinformation,” reaching “unsupported conclusions.” Abrahamson’s point is that the conservative majority’s judgment in support of Walker’s bill is so hastily reached that they have authored “an order … lacking a reasoned, transparent analysis and incorporating numerous errors of law and fact.”
What is the urgency driving the judicial and legislative Republican majority in Wisconsin? On his election, Walker rejected any possibility of working with Democrats or union leaders in favor of a head-on clash. Basing himself on an unholy alliance of local real estate interests, mining and manufacturing, together with the financial and ideological support of the super-rich and their front organizations, his strategy is to ram through a full menu of right-wing legislation so as to preempt resistance.
Unlike states such as New Jersey, where Democratic leaders voted with Republican governor Christie for measures to eliminate collective bargaining rights, 14 Democratic state senators in Wisconsin gave leadership and legitimacy to a mass movement against Walker’s budget bill. As a result, a deep-going and spontaneous recall campaign is progressing steadily to overturn the Republican lock on the legislature.
The impact of the Democratic senators’ action is shown by recall campaign volunteers like Zach Schuster. He was an intern in Sen. Mark Miller’s office when the senators hatched a plan to go to Illinois to deny their Republican colleagues a quorum to vote on Walker’s collective bargaining bill. “The day Mark left was a turning point for me,” says Schuster, a UW-Madison graduate with a master’s degree in water resource management. “That was the day politics went from being an abstract thing that I followed … to something personal.”
Corporate Democrats within the party need to be replaced with candidates like these Democratic senators, already committed to defending union rights, social security, housing and jobs by legislating to increase taxes on the super-rich and restore state regulation of banks and industry.