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WTMJ - "Gableman Beats Supreme Court Justice Butler"

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Location: Madison, WI


WTMJ - "Gableman Beats Supreme Court Justice Butler"

The race for Supreme Court that saw a virtual unknown knock off the incumbent with millions of dollars of help from special interest groups had everyone from the governor to independent observers deriding the outcome Wednesday.

Michael Gableman, who galvanized support from conservatives behind a law and order message and a barrage of third-party ads, narrowly defeated four-year incumbent Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler.

Gableman won 51 percent compared to Butler's 49 percent Tuesday in a race that will go down as one of the nastiest in state history and likely shift the court's leaning from more liberal to more conservative.

Gableman, 41, will take office in August and serve a 10-year term.

But the effects of the race will linger. There are complaints pending against both Butler and Gableman with the Judicial Commission, and calls for reforming how Supreme Court justices are chosen will only grow given the mudslinging and big money spent this year.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who appointed Butler in 2004, called the race's outcome a tragedy.

"It is a tragedy that such a fine judge and good human being was trashed during the campaign," Doyle said of Butler. Butler served the state with distinction and honor, he said.

"This has been a disastrous election for the court," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. He estimates that third-party groups spent more than $4 million on the race, outpacing the $3.1 million spent on last year's contest that also led to a conservative judge's victory.

McCabe said the court's independence is being threatened by the involvement of special interests groups that greatly outspend the candidates and control the message.

"Wisconsin is heading down a very dangerous path," he said.

The millions spent by liberal and conservative interest groups, funneled largely into negative attack ads that blanketed the state's airwaves for weeks, pushed the race into the national spotlight.

But it was one ad by Gableman, a Burnett County circuit judge, that drew the most criticism for misleading voters into thinking that Butler was responsible for a sex offender being set free early and committing another rape.

Gableman didn't want to dwell on that controversy Tuesday night when he was declared the winner shortly before midnight.

"The fact is the ad is behind us," he said.

A complaint filed with the Judicial Commission by a liberal interest group, Citizens Action, alleged that Gableman violated the judicial code of conduct with the ad.

"We'll deal with that in due course," Gableman said.

Butler did not concede defeat Tuesday but scheduled a news conference Wednesday. He is the first incumbent Supreme Court justice to be ousted in 41 years.

Gableman said his message of being a judicial conservative won out with voters.

"I am proud of the campaign we ran," Gableman said. "We worked very hard to talk about the differences, the very stark and very real differences in our professional backgrounds and also our judicial philosophies."

Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem, said he believed the election was more of a referendum on judicial activism than a contest between Butler and Gableman.

"We have that here in Wisconsin in a way that has gone beyond the limits of what the judicial branch is supposed to do," said Huebsch, a Gableman backer.

Butler bristled at the accusations from Gableman that he's a judicial activist, saying that's a pejorative term used only by people unhappy with certain decisions of the court.

The race was officially nonpartisan, but Democrats and labor groups lined up behind Butler along with 220 judges and groups representing more than 18,000 law enforcement officers. Gableman drew support from Republicans and the majority of the state's district attorneys and sheriffs.

The chairman of the Republican Party even got into the action, placing automated calls on Gableman's behalf in the final days of the race.

The bulk of the TV ads came from other groups including Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's biggest teachers union, and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the largest business group. One ad by that group hammered Butler for a nickname he earned while working as a public defender: "Loophole Louie."

"All the negative ads that are out there, either by the third party groups or by my opponent, have been designed to suppress voter turnout, and we know that," Butler said Tuesday night before Gableman won.

Some voters who did vote on Tuesday said they chose not to cast ballots in the Supreme Court race because of the ads.

"I was a little disgruntled by the ad campaign going on there," said Ginny Sauer, 37, of Wausau. "It turned me off for the whole thing. It is sad. I thought both candidates were not being fair."

In addition to the complaint filed against Gableman's ad, a conservative activist filed a complaint against Butler's campaign, alleging it received illegal corporate donations from a law firm. Butler denied it.

Butler, who is from Milwaukee, handily won in Milwaukee and Dane counties, traditional Democratic strongholds. But Gableman built his lead by winning more than 50 of the state's 72 counties.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday, turnout was about 19 percent. That is nearly identical to last year and close to the predicted 20 percent.

The election was viewed as critical since Butler is generally seen as siding with three other more liberal justices to create a 4-3 majority.

Butler was the first black person on the state Supreme Court. Butler, 56, has 16 years experience as a judge and worked 14 years before that as a public defender.

Gableman, appointed to the circuit court in 2002 by Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, previously worked as a district attorney. Gableman touted his experience as a prosecutor, arguing that he would care more about victims of crime than Butler does.


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