Justice Prosser’s long career overshadowed by one heated moment

Todd Richmond, AP writer

David Prosser filled a lot of roles: prosecutor, legislator, state Supreme Court justice. But he’s likely to be best remembered for getting into a physical altercation with another justice that brought national ridicule to Wisconsin’s highest court.

Prosser, 73, faded into retirement Sunday, two days after Gov. Scott Walker appointed attorney Dan Kelly to replace him. Prosser, typically quiet and reserved in public, didn’t respond to requests from The Associated Press for an interview about his career.

He leaves a legacy of public service marred by the moment he put his hands around Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s throat during an argument. He told investigators he was defending himself, but the incident bared a long feud between the court’s conservative and liberal justices and brought embarrassment to the court that still remains.

“As I traveled around the country people would ask me about him and the incident,” said Janine Geske, a Marquette University law professor and former state Supreme Court justice whom Prosser replaced on the high court in 1998. “It really was a tragic and horrible incident for the court. He bears responsibility for what happened.”

Prosser graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school in 1968. He worked as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and as a lecturer at the Indiana University-Indianapolis law school during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He was elected to the state Assembly as a Republican in 1978 after a stint as Outagamie County district attorney. He served nine terms in the body, rising to speaker. A baseball fan, he helped lead the push to provide funding for Miller Park, the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium. The lifelong bachelor opposed removing criminal penalties for consenting adults who have non-marital sex.

Sen. Tim Carpenter, a Milwaukee Democrat and out gay man who served in the Assembly with Prosser, described him as willing to listen to anyone.

“It was a different era back then,” Carpenter said.

Spencer Black, a former Democratic representative who also served with Prosser, said Prosser grew more partisan as he gained power, becoming more acerbic in his remarks and less accommodating.

“He changed quite a bit,” Black said.

Then-Gov. Tommy Thompson appointed Prosser to the high court in 1998 after Geske resigned. He ran unopposed for a full 10-year term in 2001.

The justices are officially nonpartisan, but Prosser was in the bloc of conservative justices that controls the court. In fact, during his 2011 campaign for retention, he publicly vowed to support Walker’s agenda from the bench.

The court’s conservatives delivered a huge win for Walker last year when they halted Milwaukee prosecutors’ investigation into whether his campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups, declaring nothing improper took place. Those same outside groups had given many millions of dollars to the conservative justices who ruled in their favor, casting a giant shadow of doubt over the blindness of justice in Wisconsin.

Over the years a feud developed between the conservatives and liberal justices Shirley Abrahamson and Bradley.

Emails show that in February 2010 Prosser called Abrahamson a “bitch” and threatened to destroy her as the justices were debating a request to remove conservative Justice Michael Gableman from a case. Prosser said the liberals goaded him into making the offensive remarks, presumably by disagreeing with him.

Prosser faced a bitter re-election in the spring of 2011 against challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg, whose supporters worked to transform the race into a referendum on Walker, who had just signed his signature law restricting public workers’ union rights after weeks of protests. Prosser ultimately defeated Kloppenburg following a statewide recount.

That same year he placed his hands around Bradley’s throat during an argument in chambers over the timing of the release of a divided opinion upholding Walker’s union restrictions. Prosser later said he inadvertently touched her neck in self-defense after she charged him, but said he didn’t squeeze. Bradley confirmed Prosser didn’t choke her and no one was charged. Prosser’s fellow conservatives recused themselves from deciding whether Prosser was guilty of ethics violations, leaving the court short of a quorum to decide the issue.

The incident became fodder for late-night comics — UW-Madison law professor Howard Scheweber declared the court a laughingstock — and to this day chalk writings still mysteriously appear on Capitol square sidewalks advertising free chokes from Prosser.

Carpenter said the incident reflects how the fight over Walker’s public union restrictions changed everyone in the Capitol.

“(The law) just polarized everybody,” Carpenter said. “There wasn’t anybody in the building who wasn’t forced into different camps. I hold that against all of us.”