Wis. chief justice says court drama is in past

Jessica M. Karmasek Nov. 2, 2011, 12:57pm


WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. (Legal Newsline) - Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson says the Court will focus on rebuilding the public's trust and confidence this term.

Abrahamson gave her State of the Judiciary Address Wednesday at the Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells.

Her speech opened this year's meeting of the Wisconsin Judicial Conference, an annual gathering of most of the state's circuit and appellate court judges.

The Court, Abrahamson said, is committed to working together in a "collegial and collaborative manner."

"We look to the future, having learned from the past and resolved to do better, much better. This is our commitment to you, and to all the people of this great state. Forward ever, backward never," she said.

The state's high court has been mired in drama in recent months.

Justice David Prosser -- who narrowly retained his seat on the Court following a hotly contested race against an assistant attorney general -- was alleged to have physically attacked fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in her chambers in June.

Prosser allegedly attacked Bradley on June 13 -- the day before the Court released an opinion upholding Gov. Scott Walker's controversial Budget Repair Bill.

The bill, Wisconsin Act 10, eliminated nearly all collective bargaining rights for those public employee union members. Walker, a Republican, had proposed the measure in response to state budget deficits.

Sources say Prosser and Bradley were arguing about the ruling in front of the other justices. When Bradley asked Prosser to leave her chambers, Prosser grabbed her neck with both hands, the sources said.

However, others have said Bradley charged Prosser and that the justice put up his hands and came in contact with Bradley's neck, merely defending himself.

A special prosecutor has said she will not bring charges against Prosser or Bradley. The state Judicial Commission, meanwhile, is doing its own investigation into the matter.

On Wednesday, Abrahamson admitted the road "will not always be smooth."

"But we shall find common ground," she said. "The people of Wisconsin deserve nothing less.

"They rely on the Supreme Court to be a place where disputes are not created but rather are resolved -- openly, civilly, professionally. The public relies on us to decide cases without fear or favor in a fair, impartial, neutral and non-partisan manner, and that, as always, is our commitment."

The chief justice said the judiciary, like the rest of the state, is not immune to the effects of the economic downturn.

It is the recession and "political upheaval" that, she believes, has contributed to the court system's own problems.

"Like all state employees, judges and court staff have seen their paychecks shrink with increased payments to retirement and health insurance," she said.

"Compensation erosion has led to scores of retirements and resignations by judges and staff."

In 2009, judges did not receive a scheduled 2 percent pay raise, Abrahamson said. "Thus, judges continued to fall increasingly behind state lawyers in compensation."

And while the judicial branch has asked that the 2 percent be restored to judicial salaries in the 2011-13 biennium, the administration has not recommended the increase to the state Legislature's Joint Committee on Employment Relations, which is expected to act "in the coming days," she said.

"Court staff, too, has taken a big hit in compensation. They had to take furlough days prior to this latest reduction in take-home pay. Individual counties have imposed additional austerity measures. Many are having trouble making ends meet," the chief justice said.

"All of this is unsettling and contributes to lower morale."

However, Abrahamson said she views each term as a new beginning.

"Among the most difficult and important tasks is to summon our courage and our fortitude to administer justice without fear or favor and to fight back against attacks on an independent, fair, impartial, neutral and non-partisan judiciary," the chief justice said.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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