The $5 Million Judge: Wisconsin Race Sets Record in Money and Meanness

This week, Michael Gableman celebrated a considerable victory: the first defeat of an incumbent judge in 40 years for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. His opponent Louis Butler was also the first African American on the Court. Yet, the $5 million race shows the steady trend toward high-priced campaigns to change the make-up of courts by legal and corporate interests.

By any measure, the $5 million race was both excessive and abusive.

One of Gableman’s ads falsely implied that Butler had gotten out of jail a convicted rapist who then committed a second sexual assault. (In fact, the second assault occurred after the man served his full sentence.) Another ad by the pro-Butler teachers union accused Gableman of sentencing child sex offenders far below the maximum, but it used the example of an offender who received a higher sentence than the one the prosecutor recommended.

Judicial races now cost an average of $243,910. “In 2006, five of the 10 states with private financing set spending records, including Alabama, which raised $13.4 million in five state Supreme Court races, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Outside groups have added to these amounts, spending 2½ times more on television ads in the 2004 and 2006 cycles than in the previous two. And increasingly, this money is coming from the business community, which represented 44 percent of all campaign money—twice the percentage of donations from lawyers, according to the Brennan Center.”

We are seeing scandals across the country due to the role of campaign money and connections in the composition of state courts from Ohio to Texas to Mississippi, click here and here and here.

For the latest story, click here.

These controversies greatly undermine the credibility of the courts and the legal system as a whole. The question is whether states are willing to look at other options than direct election of judges to guarantee greater independence and ethics.

15 thoughts on “The $5 Million Judge: Wisconsin Race Sets Record in Money and Meanness”

  1. Hello everyone,

    This news is over a week old, but worth posting on this judicial elections thread: The Fourth Circuit has dismissed a free-speech type challenge to North Carolina’s law granting public monies as matching funds to participating judges in non-partisan elections. It was an attempt by the state to level the playing field for judges who might not enjoy large funder’s backing.

    The case is North Carolina Right to Life Committee Fund for Independent Political Expenditures v. Leake.

    This represents a victory for all of us who are worried about the increasing encroachment of special interests in non-partisan state judicial elections.

  2. It’s comforting to know all that time and money you invested in law school will eventually be pissed away by some political hack judge with barely enough juristic know-how to keep a village traffic court running.

  3. Micheal:

    Great discussion and clearly you’ve nailed a great number of the major headings of this most enjoyable diversion. What appears to be disagreement is simply the nuance of our personal experiences. It would be difficult to find an argument worth pursuing in what you wrote.

    I do share your optimism, despite my sweet tooth for a wee bit o’ sarcasm, for the very reasons you cogently expressed.

  4. Binx,
    I suspect that you and i agree to a large extant but we differ somewhat in cause and agree closely in effect. although it would be easy to blame the ignorance of many in the public on a corporatist and/or right wing conspiracy, that would only account for part of the reality. I know many who were involved in the various movements in the 60’s, who becoming discouraged by their lack of success, really did spend the 70’s (and onward) self-involved in their own affairs. Their widespread cynicism was abetted by the MSM, but they were quite receptive. The steep decline in voter participation was an obvious outcome, but less obviously was an individual lack of interest in politics in general. The lack of interest translates into ignorance.

    Meanwhile an attack upon the teaching of history/civics in school began in the early 80’s by right wingers who objected to teaching the less savory aspects of American history. This led to a reduced curricula and a sanitizing of content so as not to offend. The movement against teaching evolution is a successor to this strategy.
    It led to a generation growing up from the 80’s that didn’t even understand the meaning of the constitution, or the basis of our legal system.

    I’m of course simplifying all of this because it literally takes books to describe. My optimism, however, is despite all this national polls do show people seeing beyond this, the rise of the Blogosphere has fostered information and the country’s youth seems positively energized. I must admit though that I’ve been perhaps stupidly optimistic my whole life.

    You open an interesting thread of thought in raising the question of whether campaign contributions are in large part bribes. It seems so to me and that is why I’m in favor of some system of public financing of campaigns and free media exposure for candidates. How you do that in a way that ensures a democratic process and access to a variety of ideas, is a difficult question, that I’m not prepared (able)to answer.

  5. 🙂 Wooooooooohooooooooo, DW!

    Trust you are getting some good rest and are not trying to overdo just yet. You are the best judge – even it means stopping for a few minutes.

  6. Hi DW,
    I have to wonder how high the sum of a campaign contribution by one particular interest can go before it’s considered a bribe. I know there are laws that govern campaign financing, but I don’t know where the government draws the line between a contribution and what could be considered a bribe. I’m sure there’s a dollar limit specified somewhere.

    The reason that random selection of judges (and other government officials) made sense to me was because it would make it impossible for one candidate to outspend the other to obtain that office. At this point, it seems to me that elections are mostly about who has the most money to spend, and where the candidate stands on certain issues ranks second in the process. That’s only my view on this, and I could be way off base. By the way, it’s good to see you back. 🙂

  7. Michael:
    Your assessment of my view was pretty accurate, however, I rather think that embracing Civics and understanding that we’re self-governing, that is to say of-by-for the people … that in some ways the victim in this case is also the perpetrator.

    While I remain very hopeful and enthusiastic my experience has been different I observe an intellectually lazy electorate that offers demographic evidence that more Americans can name the three American Idol judges and many of the contestants, but don’t know their US Congress Representatives names, or local State political leadership.

    It is my contention, not that the public is stupid, but largely uninformed and unmotivated. With all due respect, the overwhelming rejection of the Iraq Occupation is 5 years later, at best it began 3 years later. And to this subject alone – most Americans are completely and comfortably uninformed by the corporate media, however the anecdotal environment is safe enough now for them to object.

    My experience has been very different than yours. Just this past weekend I had the opportunity to discuss politics with some friends and acquaintances of all political persuasions. While the conversations about Iraq were clearly much less contentious, I am still dumbstruck as to the degree that my friends and neighbors, comfortably remain uninformed. At the same time, I remain optimistic because they haven’t objected to discussing the topics as they once did.

  8. Hello all,

    Here is a reprint of a post I made in early february mentioning the Grableman/Butler contest on another thread on judiciary issues.

    “1, February 4, 2008 at 1:35 am
    Hi Susan,

    I think outright bribery is probably fairly rare, but campaign contributions are another matter as the topic shows.

    When you investigate the national scene, what becomes apparent in state after state is the concerted effort on the part of the business community to secure the election of judges friendly to their interests. And the tactics employed are increasingly those we have seen in the political arena: negative attack ads and issues lists. Two proven vote-getters are attacks on judge’s criminal cases (too lenient) and immigration cases (too lenient). These are masks for the true agenda.

    A lab study is the current Wisconsin Supreme Court race between county circuit Judge Michael Gableman and the incumbent Justice Louis Butler. Wisconsin, like Minnesota, prior to White, has a bar association set of standards for judicial elections. These are now being run through a blender by one side of the contest.”

  9. “To me it is similar to the disclarity in understanding the distinction between corporatism and capitalism.”

    I somewhat agree with you, but think it is far too easy to blame the distortion of our political system on all of us. Corporatism has been in charge of the media for too many years now. The media has acted as propagandists for the system and has been brainwashing the public. Our school systems have been corrupted by activists who have dumbed down the teaching of history and civics to the point that the education of our populace prevents them from understanding our constitutional government and our individual rights. This has been reinforced by media denigration of our court system in tandem with an entertainment industry that relies on crime shows as its staple.

    I think, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that you blame the victims (public) for its lack of understanding of the fundamental corruption of corporatist society. I’m not sure if that is so. Americans, in my view have been force fed a cynical view of government by the punditocracy and by those of the right wing that follow the likes of Rove and Grover Norquist.

    Despite this I still, perhaps naively, believe that the general public is far less ignorant than many give them credit for being. The overwhelming rejection of the Iraq Occupation and the concomitant disdain for George Bush has come about in the face of tremendous propaganda, lies and deceptions. The public is far from stupid but they need rallying points to overcome their cynicism and activate their decency.

  10. A total reform of campaign finance, indeed. The biggest hurdle in overcoming this obstacle is the resistance of Americans in general to accept that the system is in fact, corrupt. While there is considerable appetite for the excoriation of corrupt individual politicians, there seems little willingness to admit that we are all part of the design that leads to greater political corruption and are indeed, corrupt ourselves. Perhaps they would be more amenable to reform if we described the problem as pollution, instead of corruption.

    To me it is similar to the disclarity in understanding the distinction between corporatism and capitalism. We Americans need to re-express our devotion to the fundamentals of our Democratic Republic; perhaps, we all need a public Civics refresher as to the conditions in which our Representative government flourishes and to the conditions in which it is obfuscated, and worse, abused.

    The corporate media has been most effective in stifling the altruists and assisting the transformation of political debate into competitive sports – since the sponsorship of political debate is a thriving commercial enterprise and a significant stream of revenue.

    Not unlike drinking water … we choose to spend great deals of money in packaging and convenience, with no measurable benefit and actually, more waste and pollution.

  11. There is much to be said for the proposition that the only real issue in the attempt to preserve our Constitution is total reform of campaign financing. I would argue that the solution to every other major national problem has roots in our corrupt campaign finance system.

    In this instance judicial impartiality falls victim to corporate expedience and need. We need to also look at our system of electing District Attorneys, which provides incentive to the politically ambitious to ignore justice in favor of good publicity.

  12. It has been said that the best government that money can buy is by definition a government that is already bought and paid for. That goes double for the judiciary. Isn’t the partisan bias of the US Attorneys under Bu$hCo bad enough? And when an injustice is created by bias in the lower courts can anyone expect the corporate friendly Republican appointees on SCOTUS to redress the imbalance?

    I don’t think things could get much worse.

  13. JT, I once read of an idea to select judges other than by direct election. The method was by “random” selection from a group of qualified lawyers, who would meet the qualification criteria for serving on the bench. In addition, it was also suggested that each judge serve no more than one, possibly two terms on the bench, to avoid the trap of “falling in love” with judicial power.

    Both suggestions made sense to me, as they came from a very well-known trial lawyer himself. Anyone want to guess who it is? Sorry, folks, I can’t offer any prizes, other than the standard “we have a winner.” 🙂

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