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Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

Wisconsin Supreme Court: Corruption at the Top

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Growing enthusiasm for a recall election has focused so much attention on corruption in the governor's office that many people may be overlooking even more highly placed corruption that could derail the entire democratic process.

That is the open corruption of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Wisconsin was once again reminded of the stench arising from its highest court with the revelation that Justice Michael Gableman received tens of thousands of dollars in free legal services from one of the state's largest law firms.

To make the corruption even more brazen, Gableman is currently sitting in judgment of five lawsuits being argued before the Supreme Court by Michael Best & Friedrich, the firm that provided him with that enormous financial gift.

State ethical rules forbid officials from receiving anything of value for free because of their positions, and a separate judicial code specifically prohibits judges from accepting gifts from anyone likely to appear before them.

If charges are brought after a requested investigation—and how could they not be?—it will be the second time Gableman has faced possible discipline for unethical behavior.

In fact, the tens of thousands of dollars in free legal services were provided by Michael Best & Friedrich to defend Gableman against Wisconsin Judicial Commission charges that he lied about his opponent, former Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, in a racially tinged ad untruthfully claiming Butler freed a black child molester who then assaulted another child.

Michael Best & Friedrich represented Gableman from 2008 to 2010. And the law firm's explanation about why Gableman wasn't required to pay any legal fees defies belief. The law firm compared the arrangement to lawyers' contingency fees common for victims of personal injury suing for damages. If the victims win, lawyers get a percentage of the award. If the victims lose, the lawyers get nothing.

You don't have to be Perry Mason to see through that explanation. Gableman wasn't suing for damages. He was defending himself against charges of wrongdoing.

Gableman was never exonerated, but he escaped punishment.

The Supreme Court itself ultimately decides the discipline for legal and ethical violations by its own members.

With seven members on the court, not even Gableman was unethical enough to sit in judgment of himself. But the other three Republican justices had no qualms about voting not to punish Gableman, whose vote gives them a right-wing majority on the court.

That ended the case with a 3-3 stalemate. Since Gableman wasn't found innocent, he couldn't apply to have state taxpayers pay his legal fees.

And Michael Best & Friedrich claimed it had agreed not to charge Gableman any legal fees for two years of representation unless the state paid his bill.

Criminals everywhere should immediately start lining up at Michael Best & Friedrich to get in on that great deal. You can be represented by one of the most expensive law firms in the state and you won't be charged a dime unless someone else agrees to pay your bill.

Remember when conservatives believed in law and order?

Ethics Cases Raise Questions

Although Gableman leads the court in ethical investigations, his behavior is no longer unusual among the right-wing majority on the court.

His colleague Justice Annette Ziegler received a judicial reprimand for not recusing herself from cases involving companies in which she owned stock and a bank that gave her and her husband a big loan (and where her husband was a director).

And, of course, a third majority justice, David Prosser, aka the Madison Strangler, is still under investigation by the Judicial Commission for putting his hands around the throat of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley during a judicial disagreement.

The unapologetic lack of ethics and behavioral restraint on Wisconsin's court isn't just a national embarrassment to the state. It now raises serious questions about the legal oversight of the upcoming recall election.

Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Party have made it clear they will try every legal trick possible to block the recall effort against the governor that has collected more than half a million signatures on recall petitions in just a month.

Not a single one of those signatures has been turned into the Government Accountability Board (GAB), the nonpartisan agency charged with ordering and overseeing a recall election if 540,000 signatures are gathered. But that hasn't stopped Walker and the Republican Party from filing a lawsuit in heavily Republican Waukesha County claiming the GAB intends to count duplicate signatures and signatures by cartoon characters.

That's not true. Any honest court committed to upholding the law would summarily dismiss such fraudulent claims in any of the lawsuits Walker and the Republicans are expected to file.

But can any of us be confident that the openly corrupt Republican majority on Wisconsin's Supreme Court won't invent some excuse, legal or not, to block the recall election of Gov. Walker?

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