Three Wisconsin Supreme Court justices are disputing an allegation by Justice Michael Gableman that Justice Ann Walsh Bradley rapped him on the head during a 2008 meeting at which they were reportedly present.
Gableman relayed the alleged incident to Dane County Sheriff's deputies during the investigation into a June 13 altercation between Bradley and Justice David Prosser.
Prosser has acknowledged putting his hands on Bradley's neck during an argument over when to release a decision on the state's controversial collective bargaining law. Prosser told investigators he acted out of reflex after Bradley sharply confronted him over a remark he made about Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson's leadership.
During a July 5 interview about that incident, Gableman told Dane County Detectives Pete Hansen and Sabrina Sims of an alleged incident between him and Bradley. The event took place during a meeting with the other justices on Sept. 18, 2008, Gableman said, a date he said he remembers because it was his birthday and just weeks after he joined the court.
According to the sheriff's reports, Gableman said he was in a meeting with other justices, including Justice Patrick Crooks, who he said was "reading the horoscopes." Gableman said he made a joking comment to Abrahamson, calling her by her first name.
In response, Gableman said, "Justice Bradley came over to him, hit him on the back of the head and told him that he needed to show respect to the chief," according to sheriff's reports. He said he believed Bradley wasn't being playful because no one was laughing at the time.
Asked to respond to the allegation, Bradley said in an email to the Wisconsin State Journal that "Justice Gableman recounts an event that never happened on a date that, according to my records, it could not have occurred."
And Abrahamson said that, according to her records, "no meeting, conference or oral argument of the court occurred on September 18, 2008, or on any day that week." Her calendar showed she had appointments outside the Capitol that day, including in Milwaukee, she said.
She said she asked Bradley and Crooks to check their records, which also show no meetings that week. And, she said, Justice Patience Roggensack earlier requested that the court not schedule anything between Sept. 15 and Sept. 29 that year.
"Such a request is ordinarily granted, as appears to have been the case here," Abrahamson told the State Journal. "To the best of my recollection (and Justice Crooks's recollection is the same) no incident as described (and no similar incident) ever occurred in our presence."
Messages left with Gableman, Prosser and Justice Annette Ziegler were not returned. Roggensack declined to comment.
Former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske called the contradiction between Gableman's account and the denials by the three justices "disturbing" and the account itself "bizarre."
"I have known Justice Bradley for 20 years. I cannot imagine her hitting another justice in anger because he (Gableman) called Justice Abrahamson ‘Shirley' - because everybody calls her Shirley," said Geske, adding that even the custodial staff at the court refers to the chief justice by her first name.
Geske, a law professor at Marquette University, also wondered why other justices did not mention the alleged 2008 incident during the investigation into the June altercation.
"Somebody physically hitting someone in the conference is something that everyone would remember," Geske said.
In fact, Ziegler did mention it in her second interview with law enforcement - but only after Gableman told her about it. In a July 17 sheriff's report, Ziegler said Gableman had recently told her of the incident, but that she did not have any details about it and did not know when it happened.
The gulf between the justices' accounts mirrors the divide - along ideological lines - over the June 13 incident involving Prosser and Bradley.
In recounting that incident, Gableman and his fellow conservative justices - Prosser, Roggensack and Ziegler - painted Bradley as the agressor, while liberal justices Abrahamson and Bradley said it was Prosser. Crooks, also considered part of the liberal bloc, was not present.
In his account of the incident, Gableman said Prosser was speaking in a "meek and intently sincere" voice about having lost confidence in Abrahamson's leadership when Bradley "rushed toward Prosser and, with right hand in a fist, made three to four punching motions back and forth, coming within an inch of Prosser's left cheek."
Roggensack and Prosser also described Bradley as having a raised fist. But Abrahamson and Bradley said Bradley never raised her hands to Prosser but was pointing at the door to her office and telling Prosser to leave.
Gableman also insisted to the detectives that Prosser never put his hands on Bradley's neck. But even Prosser acknowledged doing that, calling it a "total reflex."
Special prosecutor Patricia Barrett has declined to issue charges stemming from that incident. The Wisconsin Judicial Commission continues to investigate.
Geske said Gableman's allegation - and the denials by the three justices - further damages the credibility of the court. "The allegation that Justice Gableman makes is a very serious one, and it was made to a law enforcement officer in the course of an investigation," she said.
"The question is, ‘How do they rebuild the faith of the people?' I think they have work to do."