Wisconsin justice's spouse head of union-busting law firm

Despite connection, justice likely to favor unions

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Opponents to the Wisconsin governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest outside the state capitol in Madison.

Andy Manis/The Associated Press

A Wisconsin Supreme Court justice is preparing to hear the appeal of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting law, despite the fact that her husband is the president of a law firm that helps employers keep their workplaces “union-free.”

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s husband is Mark J. Bradley, a lawyer for Ruder Ware, a Wisconsin-based law firm that specializes in decertifying unions and other pro-business work, according to its website. He also serves as the firm’s president.

But union backers aren’t terribly worried. Bradley is a Democrat and part of the court’s liberal minority. In fact, she was on the losing end of a 4-3 ruling in June 2011 that overturned a county judge’s decision halting the implementation of Walker’s law.

On June 14, the state’s seven-member Supreme Court agreed to hear the legal appeal over the controversial 2011 law, which effectively ended the collective-bargaining rights of most public-sector workers.

Ruder Ware employs 40 attorneys specializing in four areas of law, including “Employment, Benefits & Labor Relations.” Bradley practices law in a different division, focusing on trusts and estates. Ruder Ware represents employers in union contract negotiations and arbitration. Its attorneys also “provide counsel and advice regarding development and implementation of campaign strategy to defeat union organizing attempts.”

Its attorneys “have extensive experience working with employers to keep their workplace union-free,” according to the firm’s website.

Justice Bradley’s ties to Ruder Ware are listed on her 2012 financial disclosure form.

The judge declined to be interviewed for this story. Mark Bradley could not be reached for comment. Ruder Ware is not involved in the case, so the justice is under no obligation to recuse herself.

Court spokesman Tom Sheehan issued a short statement on the judge’s behalf: “Justice Bradley does not participate in cases where Ruder Ware is representing a party,” he said.

Marsha Mansfield, a University of Wisconsin law professor who specializes in legal ethics, says the justice’s ethical guidelines in this case are straightforward.

“Unless there is some direct connection between her husband’s role in the law firm and the specific matter” before the court, a conflict of interest probably doesn’t exist, she says. In order for a judge to recuse themselves from a case, she adds, “it has to be more than just a perceived bias.”

According to Wisconsin’s Code of Judicial Conduct, judges should sit out cases in which judges or their family members have “an economic interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding or has any other more than de minimis interest that could be substantially affected by the proceeding.”

Despite widespread protests, Gov. Walker signed the anti-union bill into law in March 2011 after it passed the Republican-controlled legislature. The law, which applies to most public employees, significantly limits workers’ collective-bargaining rights.

It was quickly challenged in court by unions representing Madison school teachers and City of Milwaukee workers. Last September, a Dane County judge overturned the law, ruling that it was unconstitutional, violating workers’ rights including free speech and equal representation.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted the case at the request of the state’s 4th District Court of Appeals, which noted in an April filing that questions remain about how the law applies to state employees.