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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Trashing the Court

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Trashing the Court
B Y J O E L M C N A L L Y

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 that equated the distinguished justice with a black child molester. But Judge Michael Gableman 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 of the 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 ads, in keeping with the dignity of his office, were positive, concentrating on his own qualifications and endorsements from Sen. Herb Kohl and judges and law enforcement around the state.

Even though we rightly heard so much about those terrible outside interest groups, by far the worst ad of the campaign was run by Gableman himself. His TV ad fraudulently alleged that 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 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 respect- ed within the legal profession, was not one of “the good people” of Wisconsin who cared about justice. If you were of a certain age, Gableman’s phrase sounded very familiar to you. Whenever the late Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Breier was criticized for racially biased policing in the city, he would respond that his policies were supported by “all the good people of Milwaukee.”

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

Winning At All Costs

The last two campaigns for the Supreme Court raise serious questions about the wisdom of electing high court justices, which we don’t do on a national level. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s conservative business lobby, first targeted an open seat on the court and then the seat held by Butler. Members of 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 its 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 Gableman, fanning the flames of racism.

Even though race and crime were used to trash Butler, the business lobby had an entirely different reason for wanting to get rid of him. Butler wrote a decision, approved by a majority of the court, allowing victims of lead paint poisoning to seek damages against paint companies that sold poisonous, lead-based paint.

Before the decision, paint companies didn’t have to worry about being sued in Wisconsin for brain damage to small children who ate poisonous paint chips in aging, deteriorating houses. There was no way for victims to prove which company sold the specific bucket of poison that damaged a particular child.

Talk about legal loopholes thwarting justice. Butler helped close that loophole, allowing lawsuits to go forward against all companies that sold poisonous paint. Most voters would consider that a fair decision. So Gableman and the business lobby resorted to a shameful campaign appealing to public prejudice by linking race and criminality.

All we really need to know about Gableman, who was elected to a 10-year term on the Supreme Court, is that he’s very proud of having run such a campaign.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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