Supreme Court candidates touting law enforcement credentialsMADISON — Public safety has emerged as a major theme in this spring’s state Supreme Court race,
By: By STACY FORSTER/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Daily Telegram
MADISON — Public safety has emerged as a major theme in this spring’s state Supreme Court race, with candidates highlighting their law enforcement credentials and experience, and some third-party ads raising questions about their records.
Although crime-fighting chops aren’t as important for Supreme Court justices as for candidates for attorney general or sheriff, judicial campaigns are always full of discussions about public safety issues, experts said.
Burnett County Circuit Judge Mike Gableman touts his experience as a prosecutor and endorsements from sheriffs and district attorneys.
And though it’s not the primary focus of his campaign, Justice Louis Butler points to endorsements from law enforcement organizations and says he was tough on criminals as a judge in Milwaukee.
The sense that justices will make neighborhoods safe is not an accurate portrayal of the role, said former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, now a professor at Marquette University School of Law. Most trial court decisions are handled by the state Court of Appeals; few make it to the Supreme Court.
“Looking at the ads, one would think that a Supreme Court justice does the same thing as a trial court judge — deciding motions, whether to sentence somebody — which the court never does," “aid Geske, neutral in the race.
The Supreme Court does play a role in deciding rights for criminal defendants.
Coalition for America’s Families, which advocates for what it calls conservative causes, is running ads critical of Butler’s role in two criminal cases recently before the Supreme Court. The group wants to foster a discussion about how decisions made by the court affect community safety, said coalition adviser R.J. Johnson.
“There are consequences of courts that tilt the playing field in favor of the criminal,” he said.
Butler has decried those ads, saying they distorted facts in two complex cases.
The election for a 10-year term is April 1.
The court spends most of its time on civil law and administration of the state’s court system. According to records from the court, 1 in 10 cases decided by the court in recent years was criminal.
Criminal court issues creep into judicial races because they are something the public is familiar with and understands, said Rick Esenberg, visiting assistant professor of law at Marquette University; he has not endorsed a candidate but appeared in a video for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce in which he talks about how recent court decisions could harm the state’s business environment.
Butler said criminal issues shouldn’t be the focus of the campaign, yet touts support from law enforcement groups in a TV ad to combat the impression that he lacks their support.
“This, quite frankly, is not a criminal court,” Butler said. “No one on the court sentences anybody. . . that’s not how a voter is going to be able to analyze how we interpret and uphold the law.”
He says he was tough on criminals during a dozen years as a judge in Milwaukee and has support from more than 200 judges, the Milwaukee Police Association, and the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.
Gableman, a former district attorney, says he’s the law enforcement candidate in this year’s race, with endorsements from police chiefs and district attorneys, a majority of the state’s sheriffs, and the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Gableman said he believes criminal justice is an important part of the job and is critical of decisions by Butler that Gableman says expanded rights of criminals.
Asked if he thought this background was underrepresented among sitting justices, he said: “I’m focused on why I am the best candidate in the race” and cited his experience as the reason for support from law enforcement officials.
Gableman’s first TV ad, launched Friday, accuses Butler of helping a child-sex offender who went on to commit a similar crime. Butler’s campaign said the ad was misleading, and Butler, who was a public defender at the time of the case, defended the role of defense attorneys in the justice system.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s business lobby, is promoting Gableman’s experience as a prosecutor and support from law enforcement.
James Buchen, vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said public safety issues are important to businesses and are a way to show the difference between an activist court and a conservative one.
Butler has said he is a centrist because he votes in the majority 89 percent of the time.
Meanwhile, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, a group that advocates for what it calls progressive causes, has run a series of ads accusing Gableman of being soft on crime.
— Copyright © 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information
The group’s most recent ad says Gableman went easy on child-sex offenders as a prosecutor. Gableman’s campaign has complained about the group’s ads, and his own TV ad says he cracked down on child molesters as a judge.
Greater Wisconsin Committee Executive Director Michelle McGrorty said the group is fighting the image that Gableman is the law and order judge because it doesn’t match his record.