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Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Corporate Court at All Costs

Expect WMC to interfere in another Supreme Court race

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Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) is the state’s largest and most powerful business lobby, but in recent years WMC has become much more than that. To the dismay of some of its own members, the group has taken a very deliberate partisan turn to the right. This is nowhere more evident than in its efforts to control the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

While WMC’s increasingly partisan behavior was evident in its legislative agenda, its specific focus on the state Supreme Court intensified after several rulings that didn’t fit its corporate model. Rather than make better legal arguments that pass Supreme Court muster, WMC’s goal quickly became to remake the court in its own image by backing Supreme Court justice candidates who would be sympathetic to its concerns.

For the 2007 election, WMC found its candidate in conservative Washington County Judge Annette Ziegler. The group proceeded to dump unprecedented millions of dollars into the race to benefit her campaign. With its relentless infusion of cash, WMC was able to air positive advertising very early for Ziegler and attack her opponent almost without end. Although the WMC agenda has much more to do with the corporate bottom line, it chose to go with a poll-tested and misleading “tough on crime” message.

But two months before the 2007 Supreme Court election, news broke that WMC’s approved candidate had repeatedly violated serious ethics rules. The Wisconsin State Journal was the first to report that Ziegler had presided over cases in Washington County in which she had very clear conflicts.

The cases—more than 60 of them— that drew the most attention were the ones involving a bank where her husband served on the board of directors. Ziegler also heard as many as 164 cases involving companies in which she owned at least $5,000 and in some cases more than $50,000 in stock.

While its candidate of choice was in the middle of a major ethics scandal, WMC not only continued spending money to support her, but did so at a record-breaking pace. Ziegler eventually won the seat on the high court, which was in large part due to the WMC-funded efforts to support her at every turn. The group spent more than Ziegler did on her own campaign—in fact, it spent more than Ziegler and her opponent combined.

But Ziegler’s ethical problems followed her. She finally had to admit to her wrongdoing and has been forced to recuse herself from many cases in just a few months. Yet there is one case that she insisted upon hearing even though she had a conflict— Wisconsin Department of Revenue v. The Menasha Corporation. WMC has made it a major priority to help the Menasha Corp. win, and if it does it could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although the case involves WMC and it spent millions to support her, Ziegler conveniently decided that she would only consider stepping down from the case if one of the parties requested it. Unfortunately, that would have required Attorney General J.B.

Van Hollen to request her recusal. But Van Hollen was also a big beneficiary of WMC money in the 2006 election, which he narrowly won. Not surprisingly, Van Hollen did not ask Ziegler to recuse herself from the Menasha case. While WMC protects its interests by throwing money at the campaigns for attorney general and state Supreme Court, who is left to represent the interests of the people of Wisconsin?

Gableman’s Unusual Appointment
Ziegler’s election to the state Supreme Court merely replaced one conservative justice with another. Now, though, WMC is focused on tilting what is currently a balanced court into one with an extreme right-wing agenda. Instead of going after an open seat on the court, they are trying to pick off Justice Louis Butler. All indications are that they are willing to break new records by spending as much as two to three times the amount that they invested in Ziegler.

After conservatives’ top seven or eight choices refused to challenge Butler, the state Supreme Court’s first African-American jurist, they found themselves settling for a virtually unknown judge from Burnett County, Michael Gableman. Perhaps for Gableman it is a good thing that people don’t know him, because his record is hardly impressive. One way to evaluate circuit court judges is to review their records at the state Court of Appeals. It is important to see how often their decisions at the circuit court are either affirmed or reversed. Gableman’s record at the Court of Appeals finds him ranked in the bottom 15% of judges in the state. Apparently low standards are not an impediment to getting WMC’s support for the highest court in Wisconsin. The group doesn’t require excellence, only a rubber stamp.

Not only are there serious questions about Gableman’s competence, but now there are ethical concerns as well. Just last week, after a thorough investigation into his appointment as Burnett County judge, One Wisconsin Now released documents that raise serious questions about Gableman’s appointment.

Republican Gov. Scott McCallum appointed Gableman even though Gableman was never part of the formal process and lived nearly 300 miles away from Burnett County. In addition, the judicial selection committee closely examined six candidates and recommended two local district attorneys to McCallum. Even though he was not part of the process, Gableman was allowed to leapfrog over all of the other candidates to get the job.

In another troubling development, One Wisconsin Now found that Gableman gave McCallum two contributions of $1,250, one of which arrived during the judicial selection process. In addition, documents were found describing Gableman as an official of the Republican Party and stating that he both hosted one fund-raiser for McCallum and introduced him at another.

The process in appointing Gableman is very irregular and raises many troubling questions. Did his contributions, fund-raising and political standing earn him his new position? Was it appropriate for an administrative law judge to give political contributions in the first place? If Gableman is willing to game the system in such a way, can we trust his judgment and decision-making at the highest levels? While money may have been a factor in getting Gableman a job as Burnett County judge, the bigger question is whether WMC’s money will be able to buy him a much bigger job. We have already seen the lengths to which WMC will go to install one ethically challenged justice on the state’s highest court. Can we afford another? WMC clearly seems bent on creating a court that caters to it at all costs. A corporate court might be great for their bottom line, but the cost to the rest of us will be staggering.

Liebmann is the blog editor and research director for One Wisconsin Now (www.onewisconsinnow.org). What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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