Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (3/10/16)
As a private attorney, Rebecca Bradley represented in a child placement case the former chief operating officer of the law firm where both had previously worked — and with whom she acknowledged having had an extramarital affair, according to court records.
At the time, the ex-wife of J. Andrew Bednall objected to Bradley’s representation based on her relationship with Bednall, the records show. The court-appointed attorney overseeing the interests of Bednall’s son in the 2005 placement case agreed with those concerns.
Bradley, now a state Supreme Court justice and candidate for a full term, responded in a January 2005 affidavit that she could remain on the case.
“At one time I had a romantic relationship with (Bednall), which we both believed might result in marriage. We broke off that relationship in November 2002, although we have continued to date on a nonexclusive basis since that time,” wrote Bradley, who was divorced in 2004.
A judge rejected the attempt to bump her on ethical grounds, according to the public filings.
Online court records indicate that it would have been unusual for Bradley to appear in a Wisconsin court as an attorney in a family law case.
Gov. Scott Walker named her to the state Supreme Court in October, marking the third time he had given her a judicial appointment in as many years.
The circumstances of the child placement case are surfacing amid Bradley’s campaign for a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court against Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg. The election is April 5. The court is responsible for policing the professional conduct rules of attorneys, and much of the justices’ time is spent on determining whether lawyers treated their clients appropriately.
The matter raises questions 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. In a letter to the editor, she wrote: “Heterosexual sex is very healthy in a loving marital relationship. Homosexual sex, however, kills.”
In a column about Bill Clinton winning the 1992 presidential election, she called voters either stupid or evil for electing “a tree-hugging, baby-killing, pot-smoking, flag-burning, queer-loving, draft-dodging, bull-spouting ’60s radical socialist adulterer to the highest office in our nation.”
“Either you condone drug use, homosexuality, AIDs-producing sex, adultery and murder, and are therefore a bad person, or you don’t know that he supports abortion on demand and socialism, which means you are dumb. Have I offended anyone? Good — some of you really need to wake up.”
On Wednesday, Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for Walker, said the governor also had not been aware of the court documents on Bradley’s representation of Bednall, who worked as COO and later as chief financial officer at the Milwaukee firm Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek.
Bradley’s current attorney, Dan Kelly, said there had been no reason to alert Walker.
“Is this the sort of thing you would bring to the attention of the governor?” Kelly said. “Of course not, this is a nonevent….This is a nothing.”
Bradley, when asked about the case, cut off a brief interview.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about or what you’re trying to do to me,” she said. “There were motions filed in that case and the judge dismissed them and that’s all I have to say. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel should be ashamed of itself and you can put that on the record.”
Attempt to remove
In February 2000, Bradley joined Whyte Hirschboeck, where Bednall, who is not an attorney, was then serving as the COO. In November 2003, Bednall left the firm, according to court documents. Bradley departed from the firm two months later, in January 2004, to take a job at RedPrairie Corp., a software firm then based in Brookfield.
Kelly said that Bednall didn’t supervise Bradley and that their departures from the firm were unrelated to their relationship.
In September 2004, Bradley began representing Bednall in an ongoing child placement dispute with Bednall’s ex-wife, Laura Bednall. The case was in Waukesha County Circuit Court, with Judge Michael O. Bohren presiding.
The ex-wife in January 2005 sought to have Bradley removed from the case because of her relationship with Bednall and contacts with his son, in particular, who was then 16. Michael J. Finn, the attorney serving as a guardian ad litem for Bednall’s son, supported that request, saying in an affidavit that Bradley was close enough to the son to have exchanged Christmas gifts with him.
“The extent of her friendship (with Bednall) and the involvement of her relationship with the children vis-à-vis the ‘friendship’ would ethically preclude her ability to be advocate counsel for Mr. Bednall in this matter,” Finn wrote.
Bradley responded with her January 2005 affidavit in which she said she had known Bednall for more than four years, going back to a time when Bradley was still married and Bednall was not.
Bradley and her husband, Gordon Bradley, jointly filed for divorce in April 2004, and it was finalized in October 2004. Kelly and Gordon Bradley both said Thursday the couple were living in separate residences at the time of her relationship with Bednall.
Bradley said in her affidavit that she saw no conflict of interest in taking the case. Still, Bradley said, she raised that possibility with Bednall, who waived any potential conflict. She said she saw Bednall’s son at school events, at social occasions and on Christmas Eve in 2004, but never discussed placement issues with the boy.
“(The ex-wife’s) motion is brought merely for the purpose of embarrassing Ms. Bradley, harassing (Bednall), and obtaining a delay in the trial,” Bradley’s attorney at the time, Randal N. Arnold, wrote in a filing.
Bohren rejected the attempt to remove Bradley, but did not go along with her request that the other side pay her costs for hiring Arnold to defend her right to remain on the case. Bohren’s written order had no commentary.
On Feb. 16, 2005, nine days after Bohren’s order, Bednall and his ex-wife told the court that they had reached an agreement to resolve their differences in the placement case.
‘A closed question’
Supreme Court justices enforce Wisconsin’s attorney code of conduct, which says that lawyers cannot start a sexual relationship with an existing client but may represent a client if a sexual relationship already existed. Bradley’s affidavit describes the relationship as having been “romantic” at one time, and dating “on a nonexclusive basis” by the time of the custody case. Bradley’s lawyer could not say whether the relationship had ever been sexual.
He stressed Thursday there was no ethical violation.
“This is a closed question. A court has looked at it,” Kelly said. “It is not in dispute.”
Stephen Gillers, an expert on legal ethics at New York University School of Law, said lawyers can represent someone with whom they have a romantic relationship as long as it began before they had an attorney-client relationship.
“If the intimate relationship predates the professional one, there is no ethical prohibition,” Gillers said by email. “…A conscientious lawyer, knowing the risks when your client is also your lover, nevertheless could choose to accept the representation.”
Keith Swisher, an Arizona attorney who focuses on legal ethics issues, said it is a concern when attorneys represent people who are close to them because of the risk that they can’t give the best, disinterested advice to their clients. Representing a family member or someone close can be permissible, but it may not be wise, he said.
“It was troubling,” Swisher said after reviewing the legal filings in the case. “Some lawyers wouldn’t have gone forward with the representation….That would just be too close for comfort for a lot of lawyers, especially with that type of law.”
“She brought into the case baggage that another lawyer wouldn’t have had.”
In most other states and in the model ethics rules of the American Bar Association, the professional conduct rules for attorneys regarding sexual relationships with clients are similar to those in Wisconsin. Some states caution that such relationships can endanger attorney-client privilege if a judge decides that their exchanges represent conversations between romantic partners.
Walker appointed Bradley to the Supreme Court to replace Justice N. Patrick Crooks, who died in September. Before that, Walker appointed Bradley to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 2012 and the District 1 Court of Appeals in May 2015.