MADISON (AP) — Four of the state Supreme Court's seven justices engaged in a limited boycott this week to protest the way Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wanted to take up a specific issue, the latest sign of dissension in what has become a deeply fractured court.
The issue involved the court's decision in January to discuss much of its work behind closed doors. The decision reversed a policy instituted in 1999 in which the court agreed to take up the bulk of its administrative matters in public.
Abrahamson wanted to write a dissent to the January decision, and she contended that the court needed to vote publicly on it Wednesday, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report (http://bit.ly/Jst6hb ).
But after a meeting earlier that morning on other matters, the court's four conservative-leaning justices failed to return in the afternoon to take up the final rule change that would close future meetings.
Abrahamson said she had received an email from Justice Patience Roggensack saying she would not attend the afternoon meeting as long as an "improper item" remained on the agenda.
"The court has made a decision about what can appear on an agenda or be discussed in conference and I will honor the decision of the court," Roggensack wrote in the email.
Abrahamson said she believed the matter had to be discussed publicly until it was finalized. She instructed a Supreme Court marshal to ask the majority justices to cast their votes from their chambers. Fifteen minutes later the marshal reported the four had voted to finalize the new policy.
The other three then discussed the matter. After they finished, the majority returned for a discussion about changes to Supreme Court rules, one of the few areas that will continue to be talked about in the open under the new policy.
Roggensack wrote the rule change closing Supreme Court meetings would help the court work more quickly. The others who sided with her on the decision and joined her in the partial boycott were Justices Michael Gableman, David Prosser and Annette Ziegler.
The three who dissented on the rule were Abrahamson and Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and N. Patrick Crooks.
"No good comes from secrecy in governmental affairs," their dissent said.
The court has been divided in recent years by personal and ideological disputes. The tension came to a head in June when Prosser and Bradley had a physical altercation in Bradley's chambers in front of four other justices. Bradley confronted Prosser in an attempt to get him to leave her office, and he put his hands on her neck in what he said was a defensive reflex.
Last month, the state Judicial Commission alleged that Prosser's action violated the ethics code for judges. Prosser is asking justices to recuse themselves because of their personal knowledge of the case. If four or more do so, the case would end.
After the incident, Abrahamson proposed the court deliberate on cases in public to maximize transparency and restore citizens' trust in the high court. All other justices rejected that idea, and Roggensack countered with a proposal to take up certain administrative matters, such as discussing budgets and setting court policies, behind closed doors.
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