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Gableman resorts to new low for high court

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Joel McNally
April 7, 2008

It’s appalling enough that a little-known, small-time judge with no apparent qualifications defeated Wisconsin’s only African-American Supreme Court justice by running a squalid, deceptive campaign equating the distinguished justice with a black child molester.


But Judge Michael Gableman dramatically demonstrated a continuing propensity for public untruthfulness by proclaiming on election night that he was “very proud of the fact we ran a positive campaign.”


If Gableman’s sleazy smear campaign against Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler was his idea of positive, we’d hate to think what sort of stomach-turning tactics Gableman would employ during a negative campaign.


Much of the media coverage of the Supreme Court race decried the millions of dollars spent by outside interest groups to try to influence the election. Completely ignored was any objective comparison of the dramatic and lopsided differences in the legal qualifications of the two candidates, one with a long, respected legal career and the other with very little record at all.


But it was the ads run by the candidates themselves that revealed the most about the character of the candidates.


Butler’s own ads, in keeping with the dignity of his office, were totally positive, concentrating on his own qualifications and endorsements from U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl and judges and law enforcement around the state.


By far the worst ad of the campaign was run not by any of those terrible outside interest groups we heard so much about, but by Gableman himself. The TV commercial fraudulently alleged Butler was responsible for freeing a child molester, who then assaulted another child.


It simply never happened. As a public defender nearly 25 years ago, Butler represented the man on appeal and won a new trial from an appeals court. But the Wisconsin Supreme Court overruled that decision, and the man served his entire required sentence.


Years later, after serving his sentence, the man committed another crime. The point of the ad, that Butler was responsible for freeing the man, was a complete fabrication.


Even worse, the ad employed intentionally racially charged imagery. Gableman created a split screen, showing the black, convicted child molester side-by-side with a laughing Louis Butler. In his dishonest election night speech, Gableman continued to use racially coded language.


Gableman called his election “a victory for all the people across this state, all the good people who are dedicated to seeing justice done.” So Butler, an African-American who rose to the state’s highest court, widely respected within the legal profession, was not one of “the good people” of Wisconsin who cared about justice.


The late Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Breier used to justify racially biased policing in his city, saying he was supported by “all the good people of Milwaukee.”


Apparently, for people who use that phrase, good people come in only one color.


The last two campaigns for the Supreme Court raise serious questions in many minds about the wisdom of electing high court justices. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s conservative business lobby, targeted an open seat on the court and then the seat held by Butler. The lobbying group spent millions of dollars in both elections to buy justices who would rule in their favor when they face lawsuits.


To the business lobby and many of their Republican supporters, winning is everything. Qualifications and honesty count for nothing.


They are actually proud of having elected, in the past two elections, Annette Ziegler, an ethically corrupt judge now being disciplined for repeatedly presiding over cases in which she and her husband had a personal financial interest, and now Gableman, fanning the flames of racism.


The real reason business wanted to get rid of Butler was that he wrote a decision allowing paint companies to be sued for selling poisonous lead-based paint that caused brain damage in children. Because most voters probably agreed with the decision, Gableman and the business lobby resorted to a shameful campaign appealing to public prejudice by linking race and criminality.


The worst thing we know about Gableman is that he’s proud of having run such a campaign.


Joel McNally is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is jmcnally@wi.rr.com.

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