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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Aftermath of a Court Race

Wisconsin ’08 was one of the nastiest state Supreme Court elections in modern history. Incumbent Justice Louis Butler went down to defeat after opponent Mike Gableman and business interests in the state ran slashing, misleading ads portraying him as soft on crime. We criticized the spots in several stories.

Today, Gableman, though sitting on Wisconsin’s highest court, is still fighting a legal battle over whether he lied in one of the ads that helped put him there.

And Butler? Earlier this month, he was nominated by President Obama for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge.

Gableman is challenging the authority of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which last year found "probable cause to believe that [he] willfully violated" the state’s code of judicial ethics. Gableman says the ad is truthful, and that in any case the First Amendment protects his campaign ads. In a court hearing last month, the three presiding judges – who will decide whether to recommend sanctions against Gableman, and if so what kind – listened as James Alexander, the commission’s executive director, used the L-word to describe the ad in question. "Let’s say what it is – it’s a lie," said Alexander.

We said that the ad "falsely implies that Butler was responsible for freeing [a] rapist and allowing him to commit another sexual assault." The spot also had racial overtones, pairing a photo of Butler, who is African American, with a mug shot of a convicted rapist, who is also black.

There’s speculation that Gableman’s face-off with the judicial commission, which isn’t the first case about judicial campaign speech to percolate through the courts, could be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Butler’s nomination to a job more prestigious and better-paying than the seat Gableman won from him has provoked strong reactions. Wisconsin’s two Democratic senators lauded his choice to be on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, as did Madison’s liberal Capital Times newspaper. On the other hand, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner and the conservative Washington Times editorial page blasted it.

We’ll no doubt hear more from both sides as Butler’s nomination is considered by the Senate.