A new television ad in the state Supreme Court race misleads the public about Justice Louis Butler's role in defending a man accused of rape in 1984 when he was a defense lawyer, according to a review of court records.
Butler's campaign and former Justice Janine Geske denounced the ad by Burnett County Circuit Judge Michael Gableman. The ad shows a close-up of Butler and convicted rapist Reuben Lee Mitchell on the screen at the same time.
"Butler found a loophole. Mitchell went on to molest another child," the narrator says.
That statement is misleading, according to a review of court records by The Associated Press.
Mitchell was convicted of raping an 11-year-old girl in 1985 and sentenced to prison. Butler, then a public defender in Milwaukee, did not represent Mitchell at the trial.
He did represent Mitchell in his appeal and won him a new trial after the appeals court said an error undermined its confidence in the verdict.
But the Supreme Court overturned that decision and reinstated the conviction. Mitchell remained behind bars until 1992, when he was paroled to a Milwaukee halfway house. Then in 1995, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for twice raping a 14-year-old runaway, once at gunpoint. He remains in a state prison.
"Louis Butler worked to put criminals on the street," the female narrator says.
"The ad seems to say he got him off. For God sakes, that's terrible," said Geske, who was a justice in the 1990s and is neutral in the race. "This ad is awful on so many levels, from misportraying the role of the Supreme Court, misportraying the role of the public defender, appealing to the fear of citizens. We're sinking to new lows."
Butler's campaign adviser Sachin Chheda agreed.
"It's disgusting. It's sleazy. It's dishonest," he said. "And frankly, with the record of the Gableman campaign, the voters can't believe a word of it."
Butler was only doing his job as a defense attorney, Geske said.
Gableman spokesman Mark Graul defended the ad, saying it is informing people about cases Butler handled as a public defender. Asked whether winning new trials for their clients is what defense lawyers are supposed to do, he responded, "Sure. Absolutely."
"The point of this ad is to show the jobs these two candidates did before they became judges," he said. "Michael Gableman was a prosecutor. Louis Butler was a criminal defense lawyer."
He said the "loophole" the ad refers to was Butler's argument - accepted by the appeals court - that the conviction was tainted because evidence the girl was a virgin was improperly admitted. The higher court disagreed.
Graul also said it did not violate Gableman's pledge to run a clean campaign.
"It's not a personal attack," Graul said. "It talks about Butler's record just as Butler has said previously that records are important things to know about."
The ad, which started running Friday in Milwaukee and may expand broader, starts by attacking ads that have been run by independent groups going after Gableman. It then defends his record as a district attorney before turning to the case of Mitchell.
"Can Wisconsin families feel safe with Louis Butler on the court?" the narrator asks at the end of the ad. The election is April 1.
Tom Solberg, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee, which has been monitoring the race, said the committee would look into the ad's claims. The group has said ads run by outside groups unfairly attacked Butler's record on crime and integrity.
"It's ads like this that are the reason that the overwhelming majority of judges, who know how judges are supposed to act, support Justice Butler," Butler's spokesman Chheda said. "If Mike Gableman thinks that this ad is appropriate for someone who wants to serve on Wisconsin's highest court, it's clear that he's not able and ready to serve."
Butler is backed by more than 200 judges in the state compared to 12 for Gableman.
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