Hijacking Justice 2008

Issue Ads in the 2008 Supreme Court Campaign

Posted: February 22, 2008
Updated: October 13, 2014

Listed below are the groups that made issue ads in the 2008 Supreme Court election.

Club for Growth Wisconsin

Supported: Gableman
Estimated Spending: $507,000

This phony issue ad group is the state arm of the national Club for Growth, which is widely known for its outside electioneering activities to support conservative Republican candidates for federal office.

In late February 2008, Club for Growth Wisconsin bought a reported $103,000 worth of television advertising in Milwaukee to support Burnett County Circuit Judge Michael Gableman in his bid to unseat incumbent Justice Louis Butler in the April elections. The ad said Gableman dealt sternly with serious criminals and that most law enforcement groups considered him their ally. The ad showed a couple of crime scenes and people in handcuffs, getting into a squad car and being fingerprinted.

In summer and fall 2007, the group ran numerous radio advertisements criticizing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle’s proposed 2007-09 state budget and majority Senate Democrats for the cost of their proposed universal health care plan.

Club for Growth Wisconsin first appeared in February 2007 when it spent an estimated $400,000 on a phony issue ad in the Supreme Court race to support candidate winning candidate Annette Ziegler.

Coalition for America’s Families

Supported: Gableman
Estimated Spending: $480,000

This is a Virginia-based conservative coalition of businesses and non-profit groups that supports Republican candidates and advocates so-called pro-family policies and cutting taxes. The group is led by Steve King, a Janesville Republican and former head of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

Like other phony issue ad groups, the coalition does not reveal the individuals, businesses or other organizations that give it money, or how much it spends on electioneering activities.

In the 2008 Supreme Court race, the coalition backed Burnett County Circuit Judge Michael Gableman in his effort to unseat then-incumbent Justice Louis Butler in the April 1 election.

The coalition launched two 30-second television ads in early March 2008 criticizing Butler for decisions issued by the Supreme Court in two murder cases. In one decision, the court’s majority, which included Butler, ordered a new trial in a 1981 Madison murder because advances in DNA technology showed some of the evidence was not correctly identified at the time of the slaying. In the other case involving a 1998 Kenosha murder, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2006 it was up to the circuit court to determine what evidence to admit or prohibit during the trial. The accused assailant, Mark Jensen, was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in February 2008.

In both ads, the narrator says “on cases taken up by the Supreme Court, Louis Butler sided with criminals 60 percent of the time. Tell Louis Butler ‘victims, not criminals, deserve justice.’”

Less than a week before the election, the coalition sponsored a 60-second radio ad that said Butler accepted more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from lawyers with cases before the Supreme Court. However, the ad did not tell listeners Butler publicly disclosed those donations to parties with cases before the court – a practice that goes beyond Court requirements and what most of the other justices do.

The group also made robocalls accusing Butler of using legal technicalities when he was a public defender in the 1980s to suppress key evidence in cases and overturn convictions of dangerous criminals

In the 2006 elections, the group reportedly spent more than $1 million on phony issue ad activities in statewide races and in support of the "gay marriage" referendum.

The coalition first surfaced in the 2002 elections when it spent an undisclosed amount on phony issue ads to support Republican legislative candidates.

Greater Wisconsin Committee

Supported: Butler
Estimated Spending: $1,450,000

The Greater Wisconsin Committee is a Milwaukee-based electioneering group organized in 2004 to support Democratic candidates and oppose Republican candidates. Like other phony issue ad groups, the committee refuses to identify its contributors and the amount it raises and spends to sponsor mostly negative mailings and radio, television and newspaper advertising during an election.

It gets most of its cash from labor, business and Democratic-leaning ideological groups.

The group got involved in the 2008 Supreme Court race with television ads against Burnett County Circuit Judge Michael Gableman who challenged then-incumbent Justice Louis Butler for a 10-year seat on the high court.

In late February, the group spent about $187,000 to run an ad in Milwaukee that questioned how Gableman became a circuit judge.

The ad said Gableman was appointed to his circuit judgeship in 2002 by Republican Governor Scott McCallum after holding a fundraiser for the governor and contributing $1,250 to McCallum a few weeks before the appointment was announced. That contribution was in addition to another $1,250 contribution to McCallum earlier in 2002. The ad, which mirrored a report released the same day by the liberal One Wisconsin Now, also said Gableman got the job even though he missed the application deadline for it, was not among the two candidates recommended by a McCallum-appointed panel to screen candidates and lived about 300 miles away in Appleton.

The committee ran a 60-second statewide radio ad in mid-March saying that telephone records during Gableman’s stint as Ashland County district attorney show Gableman made more than 50 long distance telephone calls at taxpayer expense from his office to political organizers and supporters of McCallum. The calls were made in the weeks leading up to a June 2002 McCallum fundraiser that Gableman hosted shortly before the former governor gave Gableman his circuit court post, the ads says.

The group’s third television ad released in mid-March said Gableman frequently negotiated plea bargains as a prosecutor that reduced charges against child sex offenders from felonies to misdemeanors. After he became a judge, the ad claims he sentenced child sex offenders to between one and five years in prison – about 25 years less than the average sentence for those crimes. “Tell Michael Gableman judges need to get tough on child sex predators,” the committee’s ad concludes.

In early March 2008 the committee sponsored a 30-second television commercial showing a bobble-headed likeness of Gableman. The ad asked listeners: “Remember Michael Gableman – the big political contributor who became a judge?” It went on to claim Gableman’s trials took longer than they should have to get criminals convicted and off the streets. It also said one third of Gableman’s decisions that were appealed were overturned by higher courts.

A week before the election, Greater Wisconsin launched two 30-second television ads. One ad criticized Gableman for running a Willie Horton-style television spot that smeared Butler for his role in a 1984 child sex offender case because the man later went on to molest another child. The ad failed to say Butler was a public defender, not a judge, in the case. The Gableman ad also failed to say Butler ultimately lost the case and the man went to prison and committed the second crime after he was released. The ad was repeatedly denounced by court observers and others as race-baiting, misleading and dishonest.

The second advertisement generally criticized all anti-Butler advertisements as unfair and said groups representing thousands of state and local law enforcement officers supported Butler because he rejected appeals by convicted criminals most of the time.

A day before the April 1 election, the committee launched its sixth and final television advertisement of the campaign – a 30-second spot that rehashed much of the negative claims against Gableman and positive statistics and endorsements involving Butler.

Greater Wisconsin Committee’s PAC reported making independent expenditures of nearly $97,000 in the Supreme Court race.

In previous elections, the group spent an estimated $420,00 on independent expenditures and phony issue ads in the 2007 Supreme Court race and more than $4 million in the 2006 general election.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce

Supported: Gableman
Estimated Spending: $1,760,000

As the state’s largest business organization, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is one of the most influential groups at the State Capitol. It was one of the first organizations to use negative advertising and other outside electioneering activities to sway elections starting in 1996. Like other phony issue ad groups, WMC usually refuses to disclose how much it raises and spends on these activities.

WMC backed Burnett County Circuit Judge Michael Gableman in his effort to unseat Justice Louis Butler in the 2008 Supreme Court race April 1.  The Democracy Campaign estimates that WMC spent $1.76 million on the race but the group said later in a 2013 message to its members that it spent $2.25 million on Gableman-Butler contest.

WMC’s first commercial ad followed a number of pro-Gableman videos on compact disc mostly distributed among WMC members and a YouTube video that claimed a majority of the seven-member court had made numerous anti-business rulings in recent years, many with Butler’s support.

WMC sponsored a one minute radio ad statewide in late February that said Gableman was qualified to be on the high court because he had the support of 51 county sheriffs who purportedly considered Gableman "their ally in the war on crime."

WMC sponsored a 30-second pro-Gableman television ad the second week in March. It featured upbeat music and crime scene- and courtroom-related film footage. It touted Gableman’s endorsements by some of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, as well as his experience as prosecutor. “Crime is an important issue in Wisconsin and we should thank judges like Michael Gableman who have been allies in the war on crime,” the narrator says.

In mid-March, WMC sponsored a 60-second radio ad promoting Gableman and a 30-second negative television advertisement disparaging Butler. The radio ad portrayed Gableman as a tough circuit court judge whose rulings had helped keep neighborhoods and people safe from violent criminals. The business group’s television ad criticized Butler for a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that told a lower court to decide what evidence should be admitted for the jury to hear in a 2008 Kenosha murder trial. The defendant, Mark Jensen, was laster found guilty of killing his wife and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

WMC sponsored its third television ad – and arguably one of the most negative by outside groups or the candidates in the campaign – a week before the election. The 30-second spot referred to Butler several times as “Loophole Louie” and briefly cited two murder cases in which Butler’s purported view of some of the evidence in the cases could have jeopardized prosecution of the defendants.

WMC has spent millions of dollars on phony issue ads since 1996 in legislative races and statewide races in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007.

Like pro-business groups in other states, WMC uses an increasing amount of its resources from secret fundraising to support judicial and attorney general candidates it believes would look more favorably on business when lawsuits, complaints and other legal matters arise. For instance, it spent an estimated $2.5 million on phony issue ads in the 2006 attorney general race, which its candidate, JB Van Hollen, won. It spent another $2.2 million a few months later, in the 2007 Supreme Court race where its candidate, Annette Ziegler, also won.