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Workplace Anger, Wisconsin Style

Back in June we brought you reports of Justice David Prosser allegedly putting his hands around a female colleague's neck during a heated argument over the court's ruling with regard to Wisconsin's collective bargaining law. Now the official reports

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Back in June we brought you reports of Justice David Prosser allegedly putting his hands around a female colleague's neck during a heated argument over the court's ruling with regard to Wisconsin's collective bargaining law. Now the official reports have been released after authorities made the decision not to bring charges against Justice Prosser.

The report paints a picture of a dysfunctional and hostile workplace with bright partisan lines drawn between the so-called liberal justices and the so-called conservative justices. It is also clear there's a pattern of verbal warfare and abuse which centers around Justice Prosser. The report is quite long, which means this post will also be quite long. Since the pages are all scanned, I've typed out relevant clips of different people's statements. The entire collection is here.

As I read the reports, these appear to be the areas where both sides agree:

  • There was pressure to release the opinion.
  • The dissent was delayed to respond to Prosser's concurring opinion.
  • There was a heated argument over when the opinion should be released.
  • Justice Bradley did come around her desk and stand in front of Justice Prosser while gesturing with her hands. He claims it was in a fist. She says she was pointing to the door.
  • Justice Bradley did ask Justice Prosser to leave her office.
  • Justice Prosser did put his hands on her neck.

Beyond those facts, the story changes depending on whether you're a conservative justice or a liberal justice. But there are some interesting moments in the documents, nevertheless. Here's one, from Justice Bradley's account of the incident and next day's follow-up with Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs:

Justice Bradley said after she finished reading what she had written, Justice Gableman said to Chief Tubbs "you don't have all the facts." Justice Bradley remembered saying at the meeting that "this is about a co-worker putting his hands around another co-worker's neck in a choke hold in anger." Justice Roggensack said something about not condoning what Prosser did, but "Ann you do realize you goad him." Justice Bradley felt that her goal of having Chief Tubbs at the meeting was to insure safety in the workplace. Justice Bradley did not feel that the point was getting across the way it was intended.

That goading remark was straight out of left field. They're lawyers, for heaven's sake. Lawyers are known to be argumentative and sharp. The unspoken implication in Roggensack's remarks is that somehow Justice Bradley had it coming to her.

From the interview with Chief Justice Abrahamson, this little tidbit:

The Chief Justice said Justice Bradley tried to confirm her goal of having this meeting be focused on this incident and safety in the workplace. Chief Justice said Justice Prosser admitted he had been "frustrated the night of the incident" and that he was "goaded into acting the way he acted."

There's that word again. Goaded.

To the question of whether his hands were, in fact, around her neck, there is this, from the interview with Human Resources Director Margaret Brady:

Justice Roggensack said that everybody was committed to having a harassment free work environment. Justice Roggensack continued saying, "You, Ann, went berserk. He wasn't putting pressure on your neck."

It should be noted that there was never any allegation of him putting pressure on her neck from Justice Bradley or any witness. The specific claim was only that he had his hands on her neck in a fashion that could suggest danger if pressure had been applied, something that Roggensack's remark confirms.

A snapshot of dysfunction

On page 29 of the report, a small snapshot of the dysfunction within the group.

Margaret's notes continued saying that Justice Prosser said two members of the court have made the job unpleasant and "a deliberate scheme of intended abuse." Justice Prosser continued by saying, "I did not move towards her, I did not squeeze her neck and I will testify to that in court." Chief Tubbs told Justice Prosser that his perception is important.

Justice Bradley said, "The issue is a chokehold and hands around my neck in anger."

Justice Ziegler then started talking about what was best for the institution, and the need for all of the Justices to dig deep in how best to serve the court. She also said maybe they need a study committee.

Justice Bradley interrupted and said she was talking about someone who put their hands around her neck. Justice Ziegler continued saying she was talking about the bigger issues.

Justice Roggensack said, "If you are requesting that Justice Prosser get counseling, you both need help."

Justice Bradley responded by saying, "Stop enabling him."

Chief Tubbs said it was clear that from the meeting, they were not getting anywhere on the issue.

[...]

Chief Tubbs said he wanted a commitment that there would be no threats or violence in the workplace, and that it would not be tolerated.

Justice Gableman said, "Not all of the facts are out and no judgment should be made."

Justice Ziegler made a comment that maybe Margaret can come up with some ideas and have thoughtful advice.

Justice Roggensack said, "You have our commitment for workplace safety."

Justice Ziegler then said, "Safety is fundamental."

The Chief Justice said there would be denial until the group accepts what happened. Justice Ziegler said, "I said that." Justice Roggensack said, "It is clearly unacceptable." Chief Tubbs again said that he needed the commitment from the court that there would be safety in the workplace. Justice Prosser made a comment that the Chief Justice and Justice Bradley never feel they are part of the problem. Margaret said at this point she began trailing off her notes and the meeting was coming to a closure without any resolution whatsoever.

On the "fist raised" allegation

Margaret explained that she wanted us to know that in her opinion, it was not uncommon for Justice Bradley to talk with her hands or make a fist when she is talking to someone. Margaret described Justice Bradley as being a very animated person when she is talking. Margaret described some of the other Justices and her interactions with them, they appeared to be very reserved, but Justice Bradley is far from reserved and referred to her as effusive.

Margaret said if you were to ask someone in her office to imitate Justice Bradley, it would be very uncommon if they did not put their fist in the air and talk. Margaret said she has seen Justice Bradley do this before and it's a very nonthreatening gesture and further described it as being an "extension of her expression."

By the way, Justice Bradley is 5'3" tall and weighs 131 lbs, according to her statement. According to his statement, Justice Prosser is 5'9" tall and weighs 165 lbs.

On the "fierce urgency of June 13th"

From Justice Prosser's statement:

The Chief Justice told the court no order would go out of the court until everyone finished writing any opinions on this decision, which Justice Prosser believed to be a reasonalbe request. Justice Prosser said they all agreed that they would spend the weekend writing any opinions and responding to the draft order.

[...]

Justice Prosser said he did write an opinion on that weekend and said he was at a disadvantage because he did not have a law clerk to assist him over the weekend, because [redacted]. Justice Prosser said there was an "absolutely clear understanding" that the decision by the court would go out by Monday, June 13, 2010. Justice Prosser said, completely separate from this, the speaker of the assembly, Jeff Fitzgerald, put the court in an awkward position by saying they needed to have a decision by June 14, 2011; otherwise they would have to vote all over again.

[...]

Justice Prosser said he was getting pressure from three people (Justices Ziegler, Roggensack and Gableman) who wanted him to join them and release the order "irrespective" [of] what the Chief Justice said. Justice Prosser said essentially they wanted to march over to the clerks office and order the clerk to issue the order.

[...]

Justice Prosser said earlier in our interview that he feels like he is the "self appointed spokesperson for this group".

What ensues is basically a pissing contest about who sandbagged who, and who was dragging their feet on getting a notice issued via the Court's information officer. If you sort through all the details, it appears that Justice Prosser was of the impression that there was intentional foot-dragging on the part of the minority to get their dissenting opinions done before the June 14th re-vote. That much is evident by Justice Prosser's remark in his statement that he has "seen these tactics before."

Justice Prosser's version of the story

Justice Prosser said the Chief Justice rarely raises her voice, but she told him that she was absolutely not going to release any notice. Justice Prosser said he was looking at the Chief Justice as he was saying he lost confidence in her leadership. Justice Prosser said immediately after he made this comment to the Chief Justice that Justice Bradley "charged me". Justice Prosser also described it as, "she exploded out of that room." Justice Prosser said prior to charging him, he said he believes that she was approximately two feet from the threshold of the doorway, inside of her office...Justice Prosser said he did not believe he moved an inch, he knew he never moved towards her, but he does not recall if he moved back at all. Justice Prosser said he could not initially exit because of the credenza behind him.

And here is how his hands came to be on her neck:

Justice Prosser said as he was telling the Chief Justice that he has lost confidence in her leadership his forearms were parallel to the ground with his hands and fingers extended out. Justice Prosser said he talks with his hands generally. Justice Prosser said again that Justice Bradley had "charged at me, it's as simple as that" and she came out of her office towards him. Justice Prosser said he has heard some stories that she walked towards him and he said, "No, she charged at me". When she got near him, he said her right fist was in his face. Justice Prosser said as he was approached by Justice Bradley he believes that his hands came up slightly as he leaned backward. "It's as simple as that." Justice Prosser then said, "Did my hands touch her neck, yes. I admit that. Did I try to touch her neck, no, absolutely not, it was a total reflex."

There's more in there about how he never saw her left hand (pointing at the door, according to her), that her face was approximately one foot from his, that her right hand was in a fist six inches from his face, and that she never told him to get out of her office. And then, as they probe further, there's this:

Justice Prosser could not remember when she raised her fist because it happened so fast. He said, "I remember the finish line, not how we got there".

And this:

Justice Prosser again said everything happened within a "split second" and he felt he did not have any time to think about any other options. Justice Prosser said, "it's simply a reflexive reaction to suddenly being assaulted."

He also felt absolutely justified in his actions.

Who's goading whom?

Rachel Graham, Justice Bradley's clerk, wrote up a statement on June 14th about the events of the previous day. Tucked into it are some extra tidbits:

Rachel then heard Justice Bradley say something to the effect that she is not going to put up with his (Justice Prosser's) tantrums, and that he should stop at that time. Rachel said Justice Ziegler then asked about the press release again, and there was then more discussion about the press release...She also made the comment that Justice Prosser would probably want to respond to the opinion. Rachel recalls the Chief Justice telling Justice Prosser, "How can you guarantee that the order will be ready to go?" Rachel recalls Justice Prosser saying something to the effect of "I expect you to call me a fascist pig, but I will not revise my opinion."

Rachel's statement also gets pretty specific about the fact that the four conservative justices wanted that opinion out that day, and if they couldn't get that, they wanted a press release stating it would be out the following day. There was definitely urgency on their part to put this opinion out before the legislature had to vote on it again.

Corroboration or Collaboration?

Even in the case of the conservative justices, the best they can say is that "both of them were angry" at the time. There's no dispute that he put his hands on her neck from either side. Everyone agrees he did. The only dispute is whether she "goaded him" into it, and whether she "walked into them." Justice Roggensack believes Justice Bradley leaked the story in 2010 about Justice Prosser calling the Chief Justice Abrahamson a bitch. She elaborated by saying that Abrahamson "needled" Prosser into a reaction. Roggensack also amended her initial statement that Bradley walked toward Prosser to say that she "moved very quickly" toward him.

Historical context

The one member of the panel not present at the time was Justice Crooks. However, he filled in the history of bad blood between the justices and Justice Prosser's behavior for us.

Justice Crooks said he has noted Justice Prosser "loses his cool repeatedly." Justice Crooks has witnessed Justice Prosser get red and pound on tables with his fists, and get louder and louder in tone during meetings, conferences and sometimes even during public meetings. Justice Crooks said there are times that nothing happens that trigger Justice Prosser losing his cool. Justice Crooks said he estimated Justice Prosser "explodes and storms out of aroom" approximately three to four times a year.

Justice Crooks said on February 22, 2010, he and Justice Bradley met with John Voelker, Director of State Courts, and Margaret Brady, asking that something be done about Justice Prosser because they felt there was an escalation in violence. This meeting was a result of a February 10, 2010 closed meeting with the Justices, during which, Justice Prosser made the comment to the Chief Justice, "You are a terrible chief. If you do not withdraw you are going to be destroyed." The Chief Justice had responded by saying, "Are you threatening me?" and Justice Prosser said, "Yes...you are a bitch." and added, "There will be a war against you and it will not be a ground war." Justice Crooks and Bradley had concerns for the Chief Justice after this, and therefore went to speak with Voelker and Brady. Justice Crooks said both his law clerk and assistants had told him they were working in "a hostile work environment."

Workplace Bullies

One of the striking features of Justice Bradley's statements are her emotional state. She clearly was shaken, fearful, tearful, and frustrated. Not one of her statements is given without tears and emotions. Justice Prosser, on the other hand, is more or less calm, has a zillion relevant and irrelevant facts at his fingertips, and clearly views himself as a victim. Here is the definition of a workplace bully from WorkplaceBullying.org:

Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

Workplace Bullying...

  • Is driven by perpetrators' need to control the targeted individual(s).
  • Is initiated by bullies who choose their targets, timing, location, and methods.
  • Escalates to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily through coercion.
  • Undermines legitimate business interests when bullies' personal agendas take precedence over work itself.
  • Is akin to domestic violence at work, where the abuser is on the payroll.

I also found this instructive:

Euphemisms intended to trivialize bullying and its impact on bullied people: Incivility, Disrespect, Difficult People, Personality Conflict, Negative Conduct, Ill Treatment

Not calling bullying "bullying," in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of those who made the bullying possible, is a disservice to bullied individuals whose jobs, careers, and health have been threatened as the result. Tom Engelhardt said it wisely when he said, "Words denied mean analyses not offered, things not grasped, surprise not registered, strangeness not taken in, all of which means that terrible mistakes are repeated, wounding ways of acting in the world never seriously reconsidered. The words' absence chains you to the present, to what's accepted and acceptable."

Sadly, it appears that this toxic workplace will continue to exist for ten more years, since Justice Prosser just won re-election in April. Did he intend to intimidate, do harm, or put his hands on her neck? I'll leave that to you to decide.

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