Anatomy of a Smear

It was fall 2014. Appeals court judge Rebecca Bradley was being encouraged to challenge Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in the April 2015 election. Winning a seat on the state’s high court would officially make Bradley’s rise as a judicial conservative meteoric. She met with pundits (your author included) and others as she explored a possible run. In the end, name confusion with another Justice Bradley and other factors led her to decide against entering the race. It was also widely believed at the time that Justice N. Patrick Crooks wouldn’t be seeking re-election in 2016 and an open seat is a much more attractive option. Bradley may have bowed out of the 2015 race, but she would come to learn that even considering a run had put her on the Wisconsin media radar:

I…found out from several friends and even some people that I didn’t know very well, that there was a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel who had contacted a number of prominent people in positions of power and influence to ask them if they knew anything about an alleged affair I was having with a (married) public figure in Milwaukee. Of course there was no basis for it whatsoever. But there was obviously an attempt to harm my reputation around the state of Wisconsin before I had even decided to run for the court.

Intended or not, the reporter’s inquiries  likely served to spread an unsubtantiated rumor to people who had never heard it before. “And the people who called me, who had been called, or knew somebody and had  talked to somebody who had been called said ‘what are you talking about, this isn’t true, ‘” Bradley told us.

State supreme court races had become blood sport in recent years, especially the 2011 race in the heat of the Act 10 debate. And if the idea of Circuit Court Judge Bradley as an attractive high court candidate continuing the conservative winning streak frustrated the left, it was about to go ballistic over two career advances she would realize in 2015.

Bradley was appointed to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court  by Governor Scott Walker  in December, 2012.  The following April she was elected to a full term, a victory that surprised many observers. In May, 2015, Walker appointed Bradley to fill an appeals court vacancy created by the death of Judge Ralph Adam Fine. Less than six months later, in October, Walker appointed Bradley to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, following the death of Justice N. Patrick Crooks. Crooks had previously announced his retirement and Bradley was an announced candidate for the seat. The appointment had the left seething:

(Walker) is giving a campaign contributor an unfair advantage in the race next year so Wisconsin residents will have no chance at having an open and fair election for the Supreme Court Justice seat,” charged Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Martha Laning in a prepared statement. Rebecca Bradley has given … to Gov. Walker and today it is paying off for her with her appointment to the Supreme Court.”


But Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, warned that Bradley’s appointment could backfire: “The governor making this appointment so close to the election does not serve the public well but is in line with Republicans’ continued right-wing special interest stranglehold on our state. However, I question why a judicial candidate would want to be so closely linked to a governor with a 37 percent approval rating.”

In December 2015, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on the results of an open records request by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now under the headline: “Justice Rebecca Bradley’s Meeting Calendar’s Empty for 21/2 Years.” Bradley told us she attempted to explain to a Journal-Sentinel reporter why the calendars produced in the request were blank:

“In fact, I stood face to face with Patrick Marley and explained how the calendaring system works for a Milwaukee Circuit Court judge and why those calendars were not available to me. And he listened and seemed to understand and then reported absolutely nothing of my explanation, but suggested in an article, in accordance with what One Wisconsin Now was trying to say about me, that I submitted false  records to them.”

Media Trackers reached out to Marley for comment. He responded via email:

I bumped into Justice Bradley and we discussed her calendars for a few minutes. She indicated she was happy to talk about her calendars more fully in a later interview, but then did not respond to my further inquiries on the issue.


For my story, I used statements from court officials making the same points about her calendar that Justice Bradley had made when we talked.


In our brief conversation, Justice Bradley discussed the system used to keep track of court hearings, but not the types of calendar entries I had been asking about — meetings with state and county officials or people from the private sector about the court budget, court security, court access or other court functions. I still do not know how she keeps track of such meetings or why she didn’t release documents showing when such meetings were held.

Bradley’s recollection of their conversation, also shared via e-mail, is dramatically different:

Apparently Patrick’s memory is poor. I told him that while I was at children’s court, I didn’t have time for the types of meetings he for some reason assumes all judges have (but don’t). Children’s court is a very demanding docket in Milwaukee County. When I did have administrative type meetings, those were all put on my official judicial calendar; otherwise, a court hearing would have been scheduled. Every minute was scheduled from 8:30-5 with cases and even then most of us were over-scheduled. Children’s court calendars are confidential by statute so he and OWN(One Wisconsin Now) cannot obtain them.


Regardless, I no longer had access to them at the time of the open records request, which was made when I was at the court of appeals. While I was there, I did not have any administrative type of meetings but Patrick couldn’t seem to understand that. He didn’t seem to understand the nature of our work there.  As for the types of meetings he mentioned in his response to you–“meetings with state and county officials or people from the private sector about the court budget, court security, court access or other court functions” I simply didn’t have any such meetings except as I mentioned at children’s court, for which I didn’t have access to my calendars anymore. I imagine chief judges of judicial districts might have some of these types of meetings although to my knowledge, judges don’t meet with people from the private sector about the court budget or court functions. Why would we?


He received the official supreme court calendar that contained official court meetings. It is during those court meetings that the justices would meet with others–most often our own staff–about topics like court budget or security. It seems to me that Patrick and the newspaper for which he writes generally misunderstand the judicial role, on this topic and others.”

Marley did quote One Wisconsin Now Executive Director Scot Ross: “Either Rebecca Bradley wasn’t working very hard or she’s hiding who she was meeting with and what she was doing on taxpayer time.”

As the April contest with appellate court judge JoAnne Kloppenburg neared, Bradley found herself under a media microscope. In early March, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a story detailing some writings of Bradley from 1992 while at Marquette University. Some of the writings were clearly insensitive to the LGBTQ community. Others mocked supporters of future President Bill Clinton.  The writings were unearthed, to use the Journal-Sentinel’s term, by One Wisconsin Now. The group used its efforts against Bradley in a fundraising email:

This is urgent, Friend,


One Wisconsin Now has received an outpouring of support from so many of you, thanking us for exposing the hate speech from Gov. Scott Walker’s hand-picked Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley. But now, after spending weeks trying to sweep the story under the rug, Rebecca Bradley and her Republican allies are spreading lies about us.


This is just MORE evidence that Rebecca Bradley can’t be trusted to uphold the basic tenets of our judicial system, and just one more reason to support One Wisconsin Now’s effort to hold her accountable.




Rebecca Bradley has denied people their dignity because they are different than her, condemns people that hold political beliefs other than hers and touts views on women’s health that are not just out of step but dangerous for Wisconsin families. And now, in an apparent effort to deflect criticism, she’s resorted to spreading lies about our organization.


When you donate to support our Supreme Court research and accountability work, you’re helping ensure people across the state and country know exactly what’s at stake in Wisconsin.


Thanks for all you do.

Bradley apologized for the writings. She said they embarrassed her and did not reflect her current feelings about the LGBT community. Not only did critics not accept her change of heart; some attempted to portray the comments as contemporary.  “Frankly, I was mortified by what I had written and regretted it deeply. But that wasn’t enough for them. And in fact, many outlets tried to portray it as if I had just said these things a couple of years ago, or even yesterday, when it had been almost a quarter century.” The event earned national media coverage.

“Actually, on a national basis,(MSNBC host) Rachel Maddow, among others, went after me nationally, to the point where the then-Democrat candidates for the presidency were attacking me publicly. I never thought I would hear Hillary Clinton say my name, but there it was.” If Bradley was taken aback by a call-out from the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, she couldn’t have been prepared for what was about to come next; a Journal-Sentinel story so salacious and misleading that many media outlets in the state chose not to run it.

On March 10, 2016, the Journal-Sentinel ran a story with the headline :”Bradley Extramarital Affair, Role in Child Placement Surface.” The goal of any online headline is to get the viewer to click on the story. A headline screaming that Bradley had an affair and apparently had some inappropriate role in the placement of a child is what is often referred to as “click-bait.” And as is often the case with click-bait, the story didn’t deliver on the headline.

The story was about Bradley representing a former co-worker, with whom Bradley had been romantically involved, in a child custody case. Bradley would make it clear that the relationship with her client began after she and her husband at the time had separated, but not divorced. The Journal-Sentinel reported that, according to court records, Bradley “acknowledged having had an extramarital affair” with this client. In fact, that characterization was exclusively the Journal-Sentinel’s. Bradley never described her relationship with the client as an “extra-marital affair,” nor does she consider it one.

“It was absolutely fake and it was intentionally done,” Bradley told us. “They contacted my ex-husband who explained that we were separated at the time and I was doing what many people do when they are going through a divorce; it’s dating. They painted it as something else, even though my former husband, with whom I’m on great terms, explained to them ‘this is simply not true,’ and they went with it anyway.” The Journal-Sentinel March 10, 2016 story contains a single line indicating that Bradley’s ex-husband said they were living in separate residences at the time of her relationship with the man she would later represent in court.

Bradley stressed that she disclosed a romantic relationship with the client, not an “extra-marital affair.” The distinction is important because the Journal-Sentinel’s reporting strongly implies that Bradley characterized it as an affair. The judge in the case rejected an attempt to remove Bradley.

And Bradley points out in the year plus since the story was reported, she’s learned that many people outside the Milwaukee area aren’t even aware of it. “Because multiple media outlets refused to cover it; they thought it was beyond the pale, and it was.” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Editor George Stanley didn’t see it that way.

In responding to readers who cancelled their subscriptions due to paper’s coverage of Bradley, Stanley not only defended the reporting but also largely re-reported the salacious story his paper had published. He also claimed Bradley’s personal life was fair game because she brought up President Bill Clinton’s marital infidelity in her 1992 college writings. (you can read Stanley’s letter to readers below). Clinton, of course, would ultimately be forced to admit marital infidelity years after Bradley’s writing.

The story also strongly implied that the paper’s discoveries about Bradley showed an inadequate vetting process on Walker’s part when he appointed her to the high court:

The matter raises questions (in the Journal-Sentinel’s estimation) about the vetting process used by Walker, who has acknowledged he was unaware of college newspaper writings by Bradley in which she condemned “queers and addicts for essentially killing themselves through their conduct.

The Journal-Sentinel found two attorneys; one in New York and another in Arizona who said there were potential ethical issues with Bradley representing someone with whom she was romantically involved. Appleton attorney Will McKinley told Media Trackers it’s noteworthy that the paper couldn’t find any attorney in Wisconsin to say that:

Very. There are a number of professors at Marquette and UW-Law schools who teach legal ethics. These are not practicing lawyers who have any particular reason to fear giving an opinion regarding a judge. Further, you ask any lawyer in Wisconsin for an in-state referral for an expert on ethics and they’ll give you at least two names. There are individuals who regularly speak on lawyer ethics. The point is that asking a non-Wisconsin lawyer about the ethical rules governing Wisconsin seems suspect.

McKinley is Vice Chair of the State Bar of Wisconsin Ethics Committee, but he made it clear to Media Trackers that he was not speaking in that capacity and was merely offering his own opinion  on the Bradley matter as an attorney.

Bradley levels most of her criticism at the Journal-Sentinel. But the Green Bay Press-Gazette had to claw back something it published about Bradley in the closing days of the campaign. The paper published in print and online a letter to the editor that claimed that Bradley had actors posing as law enforcement officials in her television commercials. This allegation was false; the people in the ads were very real. After a day of denial,  Editor Robert Zizzo finally admitted they had not vetted the letter. A correction was run in print and the letter was pulled from the paper’s website.

Bradley says she can now look back and laugh at the way the media treated her. We asked if at any point during the campaign she regretted running. She said she regretted what family and friends had to endure. Shortly after our interview with Bradley, Justice Michael Gableman announced he won’t be seeking re-election in 2018. We asked Bradley what advice she would offer to a judicial conservative seeking the seat:

“Well, he (Gableman) went through a tough race nine years ago. But when I look back to what the criticisms were, the attacks were on him, they really weren’t personal.  They related more to his professional life and some campaign ads his campaign ran against his opponent. And my advice to an judicial conservative would be to be prepared for the personal attacks. Because as low as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel got, I wouldn’t expect them to deviate from that plan.”

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Jerry Bader

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