nothin's scarier than a blank page

26 June 2011

WI Supreme Court: playground shenanigans or serious business?

I have been trying to ignore this story, but I just can't seem to do it.  Apparently, A Situation occurred behind closed doors between Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices on the eve of announcing their ruling on the Act 10 case.

He-said she-said reports wildly vary -- but that's not exactly accurate.  "She" is giving an account.  "He" is not saying much.  "Anonymous sources" are saying a lot.  (Those anonymous sources are, presumably, other Supreme Court Justices -- the only other people present during the altercation.

This was nearly two weeks ago.  Above all else, I find that the most intriguing -- and frustrating.  The voices of highest legal authority were gathered in a room.  I understand that Wisconsin is in a tense place, and I would like to think that our officials are above partisan bullshit, but they are just people.  I grant them that; I grant them humanity.  (Sidenote: This is also why I am a proponent of limited government.  Just sayin'.)

Nobody's perfect, no matter how much we would like for them to be.  Regardless, people in certain positions are bound by honor, duty, job description, and/or law to behave in certain ways.  For the Supreme Court, if something illegal occurred (such as an assault), they are duty bound to report it.

The recently published allegations of assault say that one justice attacked another.  One side says it was unprovoked.  The other side says two actions were taken: Assault #1 by Person A, and Person B's Assault #2 was an action of self-defense.

If EITHER story were true, the witnesses (four Supreme Court justices) are bound to report observed assault, no?  But they would even go on record with the press, for fear of heightening internal tensions on the bench.  I thought the main purpose of the Supreme Court was to put your neck out and make the toughest choices that are too difficult for others to discern their legality -- not to maintain internal peace on the court.

Regardless, I find everything involved with this story to be highly questionable, for the number one reason that the justices waited nearly two weeks to tell the tale.  If this were A Situation at an office, church, or college dorm, I could excuse the time-lapse.  Being that the participants and sole observers were the highest legal voices in the entire state, I want to know why they waited to so long to talk about it.

And I want to know why they chose to go to the press first, rather than the police.

Once again, the media seems not to have buried the lead, but to have thrown it out the window.  When no sources (beyond the accuser and accusee) will go on record, that's a problem.  When the incident is claimed to be something illegal, like assault, but nothing has been filed with legal authorities (the cops), that's a problem.

This is "news" because of the people involved.  The same thing happens with celebrities -- Lindsay Lohan's myriad trips to court are highly televised due to her name, not her crime.  Tabloid journalism is about the name first and the events last.

This story about dueling justices is a storybook tale.  Thus far, nothing about it is news.  No one willing to go on record?  An altercation that was not serious enough to file a police report?  What the hell is going on in Wisconsin, some ask.  I ask -- What the hell is going on with Wisconsin journalism? When did our news begin reporting tabloid tales?  If it's got a Walker/union/protest angle, PRINT IT.  Sell papes!  We'll figure out the truth along the way!  What, that other paper/blog/twitter published it?  We're a step behind -- PRINT IT NOW!  It doesn't matter if we've finished the primary stages of investigation.  We'll figure it out later.  The people have the right to know!

And, if the story happens to fan the flames of the Wisconsin divide before it can be accurately re-reported, so be it.  Hell, the longer those flames burn, the longer people will buy newspapers.

Here are some links to the actual story.  I have no interest in summing up the details of alleged-this and questionable-that.

Supreme Court spat got physical
Justices' feud gets physical
Sources: Argument between Prosser, Bradley gets physical
Bradley says Prosser choked her
Four Ways Justice David Prosser Can Be Removed From Office

Damn it.  I thought I could leave it there, but I there's a few points I can't leave hanging.

  • No one claims that more than two people were involved in the assault.  If Prosser lunged forward and began to choke Bradley, how did it end?  Did she pry his fingers off her?  Did he come to his senses and just stop?  What?
  • Bradley and Prosser are less than friendly.  In fact, they were so unfriendly that all (but one) of the seven justices were gathered in a room, and Bradley asked Prosser to leave.  One can presume that people who dislike each other have a large space-bubble when they stand next to each other.  Prosser indeed would have to lunge towards Bradley -- would none of the other justices try to leap forward to prevent him from assaulting her?  (Or, if that is the case, what on earth did Bradley do to lead the room's collective consciousness to not intervene?)
  • Having participated in an extreme contact sport and having spent most of my time with participants in that sport (who were rowdier and more physical with each other than generally accepted public standards) for the past six years, I have a bit of experience with contact/assault.  It generally is much more likely for Person A to make motions that indicate a physical advance and then have Person B throw their hands up to prevent contact than for a single person to lunge after a peaceful participant.
  • Within the aforementioned culture, I spend many years involved with the interpretation of gameplay rules.  One of the constant difficulties to navigate was the legality of a block, given that the receiver always experiences a heightened perception of the interaction than the giver or observer.  A light touch (let's say... hands brushing someone's back) is considered totally legal "incidental contact".  If someone's hands contact another player's back in a "push", that's a foul.  If incidental contact results in the receiver losing balance/attention/etc, the result of the contact does not determine its legality.  All of this is to say that I can't speak for Bradley and Prosser, but let's say...  I get mad at someone (who is 10 years my senior and in lesser physical shape), demand they leave my room, and while doing so my anger and frustration leads my hands to form into tense, moving fists.  Rather than gesturing with open-palm hands, as one often will do when full of oomph, I gesture with tightly fisted hands.  While doing so, I walk towards the person who is the source of my rage.  I did not intend to punch that person, nor did I have any idea that it might look like I was walking forward with punching-motions.  The target, on the other hand, sees an angry person walking towards him with fists raised and moving. He flails his open-palmed hands in front of him, perhaps saying "Wait -- What are you doing?" but standing his ground, not wanting to be physically bullied out of the room.  The open-palmed hands make contact with the fisted-person's neck.  The fisted-person would naturally have a strong reaction to feeling fingers on her neck, especially since she never intended -- nor even thought -- that she was being physically aggressive.  She believes he put his hands around her neck.  Hands around a neck = choking.  That is a scary experience, even if it wasn't intended to be aggression on the side of the defender.  (I was once choked by a turkey sandwich, and I can still imagine the doom settling in my stomach.  And that was just a 2 second event.)
  • If the situation I've described is anywhere near what actually happened, it explains the time-lapse between the event and the news stories.  It explains the other justices' reluctance to go on the record.  The whole thing is actually a story about a bench unable to conduct themselves like adults.  Wisconsin politics have nothing to do with it.  By definition of their jobs and role in government, the Supreme Court is the one who deals with the most controversial matters that others cannot handle -- it is their JOB to behave like adults when swimming in controversy.  In this story -- both mine and the tales spun in the news reports -- there are three classes of "guilty parties: the two participants plus those who observed The Situation and did nothing.
  • Of course, there is the possibility that this really is just nothing.  In which case, Prosser is not guilty, nor are the observing justices.  Then, the only guilty party would be the "victim" portrayed in the media, Bradley.  If this is the case, truth is the ultimate loser.  By the time the case is adequately reported to present the truth, the public will already believe that Prosser is a maniac, and no new news will change their minds.

Viva Wisconsin Media!

(My apologies for ranting.  That was precisely why I wanted to avoid blogging about this story... but, like one of the justices -- wish we knew which one! -- I was overcome with emotion and lashed out.)

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