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GOP-backed county judge ousts Wisconsins first black justice in nasty Supreme Court race
Wisconsin Supreme C 5183463
These undated photos released by the candidates show Justice Louis Butler, left, who is facing Burnett County Circuit Judge Michael Gableman in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Burnett County Circuit Judge Michael Gableman captured about 51 percent of Tuesday's vote to edge Justice Louis Butler for a 10-year term, the first time an incumbent justice has been defeated in 41 years. - photo by Associated Press
    MADISON, Wis. — A little-known county judge has narrowly defeated a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice with a law-and-order message and a barrage of third-party ads in a race that will go down as one of the state’s nastiest.
    Burnett County Circuit Judge Michael Gableman captured about 51 percent of Tuesday’s vote to edge Justice Louis Butler for a 10-year term, the first time an incumbent justice has been defeated in 41 years.
    Gableman, 41, will take office in August, but the effects of the race will linger.
    The Judicial Commission is reviewing complaints against both men, 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, making him the state’s first black justice, bemoaned the race’s outcome Wednesday.
    ‘‘It is a tragedy that such a fine judge and good human being was trashed during the campaign,’’ Doyle said.
    Millions of dollars 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.
    James Sample, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, called the race one of the ‘‘true low points’’ for judicial elections around the country.
    ‘‘I really don’t think there’s a silver lining on this one,’’ he said.
    Critics decried one Gableman ad, in particular, as misleading voters into thinking Butler was responsible for a sex offender being set free early and committing another rape. A liberal interest group, Citizen Action, filed a complaint with the Judicial Commission alleging Gableman violated the judicial code of conduct with the ad.
    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 conservative activist filed a complaint against Butler’s campaign alleging it received illegal corporate donations from a law firm. Butler denied it.
    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, had worked as a district attorney.
    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.
    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.
    Butler handily won in Milwaukee and Dane counties, traditional Democratic strongholds. But Gableman took more than 50 of the state’s 72 counties.
    Gableman said his message of being a judicial conservative won out with voters.
    ‘‘I am proud of the campaign we ran,’’ he 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.’’
    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 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 bestowed on him when he was a public defender: ‘‘Loophole Louie.’’
    Some voters 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.’’

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