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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Choking Wisconsin Opportunity

July 01, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

I know I’ve said this before but I can’t imagine Wisconsin’s contentious political and policy debate getting uglier. And yet, with one Supreme Court Justice physically assaulting another, it grows uglier and, in turn, Wisconsin’s future dims.

Minnesotans, including our state policymakers engaged in a budget compromise stand-off, are well advised to redouble efforts to avoid our eastern neighbors’ situation. Our debate, still reasonably civilized, can become much, much worse.

Saturday morning, last week, opening the paper, I was stunned to read that Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser allegedly grabbed his colleague, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley around the neck. The two were arguing over the Wisconsin Court’s decision upholding the controversial public employee collective bargaining curtailment. It was, by all reports, a contentious exchange.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, “Bradley purportedly asked Prosser to leave her office, whereupon Prosser grabbed Bradley by the neck with both hands.”

Since the initial report, Prosser has denied assaulting Bradley. In various accounts however, reported in the first several days since the story broke, Prosser noted that he placed his hands around her neck, defending himself as she charged toward him. Most recently, the State Journal reported Bradley’s allegation that Prosser placed Bradley in “a chokehold.”

In a terrific piece, Wisconsin State Journal metro columnist Chris Rickert considers the consequences of a similar altercation in a non-Supreme Court workplace. What would’ve happened if the situation involved two 18-year-old MacDonald’s workers, he asks. Most likely, Rickert observes, the police would’ve been called and one or both would’ve been immediately fired. That outcome isn’t justice but it is realistic.

Rickert sets aside the specifics of Wisconsin’s on-going, divided state policy debate, contemplating power, social standing, and relative outcomes. He observes that “who you are often matters more than what you do in this American system of justice.” Prosser is a former State Assembly Speaker. Prosser and Bradley hold two of Wisconsin’s top court seats. Justice will, I think, be difficult to serve.

The Dane County Sherriff’s Office is investigating Bradley’s assault. The Wisconsin Judicial Commission, the state body charged with enforcing judicial codes of conduct, is investigating. I don’t envy the staff leading that work. What should be straightforward will be challenged by enormity of holding powerful people responsible for the most basic of workplace transgressions.

I still can’t believe that, in this day and age, the circumstances surrounding the state Supreme Court’s consideration of any issue should reduce two powerful jurists into a shouting match. I can, unfortunately, believe that a man would attack a woman, as Prosser is alleged to have done to Bradley. Assault data bear this out.

So far, Minnesota’s contentious public policy debate has remained civil. It is, in part, a product of divided government. Minnesota voters elected Mark Dayton, a progressive who called for raising taxes on Minnesota’s richest citizen, as governor. They also elected conservative majorities in the State House and State Senate. As candidates, those legislators promised to improve Minnesota’s employment picture and restrict government’s growth. Those combined goals—raise taxes, create jobs and make government more efficient—can be harmoniously achieved but it’s not easy.

Minnesota lawmakers have wisely chosen to negotiate privately rather than publicly. They’re working to build trust, meeting around a table, rather than publicly and regularly casting aspersions on each other. When that interpersonal communications dynamic begins dissolving, policy compromise elusively slides away.

Wisconsin’s highly contentious, highly charged political and policy atmosphere is, I hope, informing Minnesota’s budget negotiations. Wisconsin provides a terrific example of what not to do. Or, more accurately, what to avoid.

If we focus on what really matters to Minnesotans—schools, affordable healthcare, roads and jobs—we find a path forward. In political life, it’s all too easy to seek and find a fight. Creating smart, responsible public policy that moves Minnesota forward, requires hard work, diligence and a willingness to avoid personalizing the debate. We may disagree with government’s leaders but we must respect their work. The shameful alternative, witnessed in Wisconsin, is unacceptable.

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