Visitors to the Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers last Friday thought they were watching oral arguments in an action taken against Justice Mike Gableman by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission. In fact, they were watching something very different.
At issue was a television advertisement run by Gableman’s campaign in 2008 that criticized then-Justice Louis Butler for being soft on crime. The ad dealt with Butler’s time as child molester Reuben Lee Mitchell’s defense attorney, accusing Butler of freeing his client so he could then go on to molest another child. In fact, Mitchell served out his entire term and only molested another child after his initial term was over.
For an hour on Friday, justices debated whether Gableman violated the Wisconsin judicial code with his ad by making what they believed to be a “false” statement. For most of the proceedings, attorneys representing both the Judicial Commission and Gableman parsed whether the true statements made by Gableman in the ad, when put together sequentially, rose to the level of being “misleading.” Liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson waited a full 110 seconds before interrupting WJC executive director James C. Alexander’s opening statement – from then, she essentially made all of Alexander’s arguments for him. (By the end of his testimony, all Alexander could say was “yes” when Abrahamson asked him if he agreed with her.)
Of course, such consternation over campaign ads is rare in politics. There is actually a Wisconsin Statute that criminalizes false statements in campaign advertisements – and while enforcement is often threatened, it is virtually never actually used. (However, Gableman is charged with violating judicial code, not statutes.) If the state law against campaign misrepresentations was actually enforced, most of the Legislature would be behind bars (instead of just Jeff Wood.)
All one has to do is quickly peruse the Wispolitics Adwatch website to pick out some preposterous television ad claims. For instance, in 2008, the Democratic National Committee actually ran an advertisement saying Congressman Paul Ryan wanted to “end Medicare.” Yet it appears no members of the DNC ended up being dragged before a court to explain themselves. (Nor should they be.) In 2009, a group supporting Abrahamson herself ran an advertisement saying her opponent at the time, Judge Randy Koschnick “sides against victims.” Yet no one recalls Abrahamson rushing to the Judicial Commission to condemn the crass electioneering from which she herself benefited.
This just shows that the charges against Gableman aren’t really about Gableman at all. They are merely about nullifying the results of an election that Abrahamson and the other liberal justices think they should have won. The true irony is, that by decrying Gableman’s attempt to criticize Butler’s liberal use of loopholes, the left wingers on the Court are trying to open up a loophole that defense attorneys can drive the Capitol building through. Defense attorneys are now trying to file motions to have Gableman recuse himself from criminal trials based on his television ad – a move that would leave the Court deadlocked 3-3 on many controversial criminal rights matters. So while the public voted for a justice they believed would uphold the criminal law, Abrahamson has figured a way to overturn the will of the people by silencing Gableman’s vote.
Furthermore, if Abrahamson’s actions against Gableman are successful, future candidates will live in fear of the Judicial Commission, and what the WJC will allow them to say in campaign commercials. It’s no secret that Abrahamson has a stranglehold on the WJC – she appoints four of the commission’s nine members – so it may be up to Abrahamson to decide in the future what conservative judicial candidates are allowed to say. (In the meantime, she will continue to be able to tell people in her ads that she’ll solve their housing problems, whether or not a case is brought before the Court.)
This case ceased being about Mike Gableman long ago – it is merely a crass attempt to inject politics into the branch of government that purports to be above the vulgarity of politics. The Court shouldn’t allow itself to be bullied, and dispense with this foolishness post-haste.