Hit job on Prosser?

posted at 4:00 pm on June 26, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

Not too long ago, David Prosser confounded the Left in Wisconsin and around the nation by narrowly winning another term on the state Supreme Court, after the unions failed to take him out in an off-year election.  When reports of a physical altercation arose between Prosser and his colleague Ann Walsh Bradley, Wisconsin Watch’s single-sourced initial report appeared to give the Left a big opening to remove Prosser from the bench altogether:

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser allegedly grabbed fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley around the neck in an argument in her chambers last week, according to at least three knowledgeable sources.

Details of the incident, investigated jointly by Wisconsin Public Radio and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, remain sketchy. The sources spoke on the condition that they not be named, citing a need to preserve professional relationships.

The story got wide play, including at Think Progress, where the progressive site listed “Four Ways Justice David Prosser Can Be Removed From Office.”  But when the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel began checking with its own sources, an entirely different version of the story appeared:

At least five justices, including Prosser and Bradley, had gathered in Bradley’s office and were informally discussing the decision. The conversation grew heated, the source said, and Bradley asked Prosser to leave. Bradley was bothered by disparaging remarks Prosser had made about Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

Bradley felt Prosser “was attacking the chief justice,” the source said. Before leaving, Prosser “put his hands around her neck in what (Bradley) described as a chokehold,” the source said. “He did not exert any pressure, but his hands were around her neck,” the source said. The source said the act “was in no way playful.”

But another source told the Journal Sentinel that Bradley attacked Prosser. “She charged him with fists raised,” the source said. Prosser “put his hands in a defensive posture,” the source said. “He blocked her.” In doing so, the source said, he made contact with Bradley’s neck.

Another source said the justices were arguing… [and] Prosser said he”d lost all confidence in [Abrahamson's] leadership. Bradley then came across the room “with fists up,” the source said. Prosser put up his hands to push her back. Bradley then said she had been choked, according to the source. Another justice – the source wouldn’t say who – responded, “You were not choked.”

So far, that looks like two sources for the JSO version supporting Prosser and one for the WW version supporting Bradley as the victim.  Ann Althouse has gone on a weekend whirlwind on this story, and asks whether Think Progress and others on the Left will demand Bradley’s resignation as quickly as they demanded Prosser’s if the second and better-supported version of the story turns out to be true.  She also notes that regardless, the numbers will remain with conservatives:

I’m reading the Journal Sentinel’s account as referring to 3 — not 2 — sources, with 2 of the 3 versions portraying Bradley as the aggressor: “the source… another source… [a]nother source….”

I want to know not only what really happened at the time of the physical contact (if any) between the 2 justices, but also who gave the original story to the press. If Prosser really tried to choke a nonviolent Bradley, he should resign. But if the original account is a trumped-up charge intended to destroy Prosser and obstruct the democratic processes of government in Wisconsin, then whoever sent the report out in that form should be held responsible for what should be recognized as a truly evil attack.

ADDED: Everyone who thinks Prosser must to resign if he attacked Bradley ought to say that if Bradley attacked Prosser, she should resign. If that happens, then the tactic of leaking the original version of the story to the press will have backfired horrifically for Democrats, as Governor Scott Walker will name the Justice to replace Bradley. If both Justices erred and must resign, that will be 2 appointments for Walker, both of whom, I would imagine, will be stronger, younger, and more conservative than Prosser, and, with Bradley gone, the liberal faction on the court will be reduced to 2, against a conservative majority of 5.

Later, Ann wonders whether WW’s Bill Lueders knew of the second version of the story and kept it quiet:

Finally, it must be said: If Lueders had the larger context of the story — including the allegation that Bradley was the aggressor — and he suppressed it in his original account, what he did was not only evil, shameful journalism, it was freakingstupid. All sorts of bloggers and tweeters like Millhiser committed themselves to the firm, righteous position that if Prosser did what is alleged, he must leave the court. Lueders’s article lured them into stating a firm and supposedly neutral principle about physical aggression. With that principle in place, they are bound to call for Bradley’s ouster, if Bradley really did take the offensive and transform the verbal argument into a physical fight.

And what are the methods of ouster? Refer to the list in Millhiser’s post: 1. Resignation, 2. Impeachment, 3. Removal by Address, and 4. Recall. A newly reelected official, under Wisconsin law, cannot be recalled for a year. Unlike Prosser, who was just reelected, Bradley is subject to recall. Impeachment and removal by address are procedures that take place in the state legislature. But the state legislature is controlled by the Republicans, who aren’t likely to go after Prosser. Only Bradley is vulnerable to impeachment and removal by address if the legislature is influenced by political ideology. And if either justice is removed, the replacement will be named by Governor Scott Walker, so only Bradley’s ouster will change the conservative-liberal balance on the court.

See what I mean about stupid? If Lueders didn’t know the allegation about Bradley after doing his investigative journalism, that was stupid. How could he investigate and not find that out?  If Lueders did know the allegation and suppressed it he was not merely stupid but evil. And make no mistake about how stupid: His article initiated a day of furious writing by liberals that threatens to hurt Bradley and the liberal interests in Wisconsin.

Frankly, the entire exercise is rather stupid, starting with the conflict between the two justices.  At least one of them can’t resolve their differences maturely, and in both versions of the story, that certainly describes Bradley, if not both justices.  Anyone attempting a fair report on a story of a physical altercation behind closed doors with apparently a half-dozen witnesses has to know that there will be two sides to the story.  Why run with just the first version?  And if it was so hard to get a more complete account, how did the JSO get two more sources in a short period of time to tell them that Bradley was the physical aggressor and Prosser was just startled into defending himself?

Either Wisconsin Watch tried conducting a hit job on Prosser that backfired, or the Journal-Sentinel got duped by post-incident spin.  One sure sign of which way to bet: Wisconsin Watch has rewritten the Lueders article, and the original version no longer exists on its site, as Ann notes:

I’m linking to the publication of the article in the Wisconsin State Journal, because it seems to be the original version of what Lueders wrote. The version that now appears at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has been — according to a note in red at the top, time-stamped 10:15 p.m. — “updated to reflect reports of a statement from Prosser denying the allegations.” But “updated” does not mean that there is an update at the bottom of the original text, adding new material or noting mistakes. The article has been rewritten, so the flaws that I am going to write about here can no longer be detected.

If Lueders got it right the first time, WW would only need to append an update to cover Prosser’s response.  Rewriting the entire article would only be necessary if WW got it wrong.

I’d expect the state legislature to start probing this incident, and perhaps we’ll know more soon.  I’d also expect this to go down the memory hole if the JSO’s sources turn out to be correct.

Update: Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert is whining on Twitter that I’m not “classy” for simply buying Bradley’s argument without question.  Boehlert doesn’t explain why I should do that when the JSO has two sources refuting Bradley’s allegation to the one supporting it, but I assume that has something to do with progressive math.

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