• WisPolitics

Saturday, March 29, 2008

 8:13 AM 

Butler, Gableman spar in final debate

Burnett County Judge Michael Gableman repeatedly attacked Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler as a judicial activist while touting his own conservative credentials Friday night in their final debate before next week's election.

Butler countered Gableman was misrepresenting cases he had decided and his record, while calling a TV ad his opponent's campaign has run "disgusting" and demeaning to voters.

The two candidates traded barbs frequently over the hour long debate, a forum sponsored by "We the People" and broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Television and Radio. It was the candidates' final face-to-face meeting before the Tuesday election for the state's highest court.

Many observers believe the balance of the court is at stake on Tuesday with a Gableman win giving conservatives four justices on the bench and an edge that could last years. Outside groups have already spent millions on the race, which has been marked by a stream of negative ads that have attacked the records of both men, questioning their handling of cases as well as their ethics.

The gloves came off early, as Gableman accused Butler of voting to overturn a homicide conviction.

"At least get the cases right," Butler retorted.

Gableman replied, "Oh I have them right, and so will the voters on Tuesday."

Gableman also often referred to Butler's appointment to the court by Gov. Jim Doyle and 2000 defeat when he challenged then-Justice Diane Sykes while serving as a Milwaukee County judge.

Butler expressed exasperation throughout the debate, saying Gableman was "casting aspersions" and impugning the integrity of the court.

"Well, there you go again," Butler said at one point in frustration.

They even bickered over who was using too much time with their responses, and a telling moment came when one questioner asked them each to say something about their opponent that they liked.

"He’s been a judge for almost six years; that I think goes toward his qualifications," Butler said grudgingly.

Gableman turned his answer into a jab at Butler, saying he believes Butler "sincerely believes that the judicial activist model is the model that's more appropriate for Supreme Court justices."

Another pivotal moment in the debate took place when the candidates were asked to discuss ads their campaigns had aired.

Gableman has come under fire from some quarters for an ad that featured Rueben Lee Mitchell, a sex offender Butler represented as a public defender more than 20 years ago. The spot implies Butler's actions resulted in Mitchell's release, allowing him to offend again. Court records show Butler's appeal was eventually denied and Mitchell served his sentence before he was released and committed another crime. A couple dozen protesters picketed outside the TV studio Friday night over the ad, chanting "Shame on Gableman."

After the ad was shown, Gableman said he felt the spot served its "primary purpose" to demonstrate the differences in the candidates' backgrounds. Butler, who said his campaign was running only positive ads, read a list of media who have denounced the Gableman ad. He said his own campaign ran an ad in response to the Gableman spot "in recognition of regardless of what's thrown out there, the fiction becomes the reality of voters."

Asked if it would be better to appoint Supreme Court justices rather than elect them, Gableman said that he has "been very proud to take my message to the people of the state. ... My message is resonating with voters."

Butler countered that the judiciary is "being tainted by the way campaigns are being run," and though he supports electing justices, he acknowledged "something is very broken in our elective justice system."

The candidates sparred time and again over judicial philosophy, with Gableman citing several cases that he says illustrate Butler's "judicial activism."

"If you're going to be a judicial activist, then you should simply say so and argue the true merits" of that philosophy, Gableman said.

"That's not my philosophy and you know it, and those are ridiculous charges," Butler replied.

Read the transcript here.

Watch video of the debate at the We The People Web site here.

-- By Greg Bump


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