Critics of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley say her decision to represent a former boyfriend in a contested family law case raises questions about her judgment.
Bradley counters by noting that the judge in the case determined Bradley’s representation didn’t violate any ethical rules.
And she contends that what she did is done by lawyers on a regular basis -- which is something we want to check.
Wisconsin Public Radio host Joy Cardin asked Bradley, who is being challenged by state Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg in the April 5, 2016 Supreme Court election, about the case.
"I was helping out a friend," Bradley responded in the March 21, 2016 interview. "This is something that lawyers do on a regular basis, to help out friends or family members who need assistance in these types of cases."
We know it’s common for a lawyer to represent a friend or family member in more mundane cases, such as a speeding ticket or a real estate transaction.
But in this instance we’re talking about a business lawyer, as Bradley was, representing a former boyfriend in a family law case in which a couple was fighting over child placement.
About a week and half before the interview, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the family law case involving J. Andrew Bednall. Case records show Bednall’s ex-wife had objected to Bradley representing Bednall. The court-appointed attorney for their son also expressed concerns.
Ethics rules prevent lawyers from having sexual relationships with clients. However, they do not prevent lawyers from representing clients if a romantic relationship existed prior to the attorney-client relationship.
Bradley responded in court papers filed in 2005. She said she and Bednall previously had a romantic relationship that "we both believed might result in marriage." She wrote that that part of the relationship ended in November 2002, but that they continued to date "on a nonexclusive basis" at the time of the custody case.
The judge on the case declined to remove Bradley from the case on ethical grounds, according to the public filings.
Bradley’s campaign didn’t respond to our requests to back the statement we’re checking.
Family law experts
We talked with five lawyers, four from the Milwaukee area and one from Madison, who have more than 100 years of combined experience in family law cases.
Retired Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Lee Wells, who headed the family law division for eight years and still handles family cases as a reserve judge and mediator, said he has seen non-family law attorneys handle family cases and has seen lawyers in family cases represent someone they had or were having a relationship with.
But he said he couldn’t characterize how common it is, partly because there likely were instances where lawyers didn’t disclose their lack of family law experience, or didn’t disclose that they were representing someone they had been involved with romantically.
The other four lawyers, however, said that in their decades of experience, they could not recall even one case like Bradley’s, in which a lawyer represents a former boyfriend in a contested family law case.
Bradley says her representation of an ex-boyfriend "who was then my friend" in a family law case is "something that lawyers do on a regular basis."
But we found no evidence of that.
Four of five longtime family law lawyers told us such representation is not done regularly -- they had never seen a lawyer represent a former boyfriend in a contested family law case. The other expert said he could recall cases similar to Bradley’s, but couldn’t say whether they occurred on a regular basis.
We rate Bradley’s statement False.