In a political stunner, Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman announced this week he would not run for a second 10-year term on the court.
The announcement scrambled the race, and prompted Democrats and liberals to express fears he would resign before the election next spring, allowing Gov. Scott Walker to appoint a conservative replacement.
Gableman said he was filled with gratitude to the people of the state for allowing him to serve in public office for 23 years, including the past 18 years in elective office. When he ran for the court 10 years ago, Gableman said, he began his campaign by setting out a vision based on the rule of law, namely, that judges ought to apply the law rather than make it.
"The people of Wisconsin agreed with this vision, and I defeated an incumbent justice for the first time in 41 years and won 60 out of our state's 72 counties," Gableman said. "Serving on the Wisconsin Supreme Court for the last nine years has been my great privilege. In decisions large and small, I have fulfilled my promises and put my judicial philosophy into practice. I trust the people of Wisconsin will elect a successor who is similarly committed to the rule of law."
Gableman's two announced opponents, both running to his left, suddenly found themselves in a wide-open contest instead of facing an uphill battle against an incumbent.
Milwaukee circuit court judge Rebecca Dallet said the high court was out of balance and Gableman was part of the problem, but that was not the only reason she was running.
"But it's not just about him, it's about the direction of the court," Dallet said. "I'm confident voters will see the need for experience and impartiality, and I'm looking forward to earning the voters' trust."
After the announcement, Madison attorney Tim Burns took to Twitter to characterize Gableman as "part of a legal movement that has declared war on working people and the protections that our democracy provided to them."
Gableman was an effective and consistent conservative on the court - he supported Voter ID, upheld Scott Walker's Act 10 law ending collective bargaining for most public employees, and voted to end the John Doe investigation of conservative groups. Those and other votes earned him praise from conservative colleagues and lawmakers.
Chief Justice Patience Roggensack said Gableman brought to the court an extraordinary fund of legal knowledge.
"His thoughtful insights and dedication to the rule of law will be greatly missed by the Supreme Court and the people of Wisconsin when he concludes his service on the Supreme Court," Roggensack said.
Justice Rebecca Bradley called Gableman's win a decade ago a historic victory that reversed an "extraordinary activism" of the court and fundamentally changed its direction.
"Justice Gableman's opinions showcase his intellect and independence and reflect his resolute defense of the constitution," Bradley said. "While his departure from the court will be a great loss to the people of Wisconsin, he leaves an enduring mark after 25 years of exemplary public service."
Justice Annette Ziegler said she would miss working with Gableman but was happy and excited for him.
"Over the past nine years, I have come to appreciate his intelligence, his commitment to the rule of law, and cherish his good cheer and sense of humor," Ziegler said. "When we disagree on a point of law, we are able to do so respectfully and without being disagreeable with each other - a trait I think of great importance to the work of the court and the people we serve. I wish him the best."
The other conservative on the court, justice Dan Kelly, said serving with Gableman had been an honor and a joy.
"He is a man of keen mind, generous spirit, and abounding bonhomie," Kelly said. "The court will not be the same without him, and I will miss him as a colleague. I wish my friend the very best as he begins his next professional chapter."
Gov. Scott Walker offered his own praise for the departing justice.
"Justice Gableman has demonstrated an untiring commitment to the rule of law and the proper role of the judiciary during his time on the Wisconsin Supreme Court," Walker said. "He has also served our state with distinction as a Burnett County circuit court judge, district attorney for Ashland County, and assistant district attorney for Marathon and Langlade counties. On behalf of the citizens of Wisconsin, I thank Justice Gableman for his years of faithful service."
State Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) said Gableman will be especially remembered for his role in ending the John Doe investigations of conservatives.
"He authored one of the most important decisions in recent times, ending the infamous John Doe investigations that attempted to squelch participation in the political process in Wisconsin," Tiffany told The Times. "The John Doe is a black mark on Wisconsin's history of robust political discourse. Justice Gableman defended our right to participate in the process."
State Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) observed that Gableman had been a fixture in the judicial system in Wisconsin for many years, including in Langlade and Marathon counties.
"He is well respected and has a solid reputation for upholding the law," Swearingen told The Times. "I would like to thank justice Gableman for his long-term commitment to the court system and the state of Wisconsin."
Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) said Gableman would be sorely missed, and he said people in northern Wisconsin remember his stint there as a circuit court judge.
"To this day, the people of Burnett County fondly remember his reputation on the bench as a fair and impartial judge," Jarchow said. "I am also extraordinarily thankful for justice Gableman's fidelity to the First Amendment. His opinion relating to the John Doe will be remembered as one the best defenses of the First Amendment in a very long time."
Retired justice David Prosser said Gableman had authored many of the court's most significant decisions.
"He has orchestrated a number of consequential reforms of court procedure and made other vital contributions such as strengthening the court's relationship with tribal courts," Prosser said. "Mike Gableman is a man of faith and a serious student of our history and culture."
Retired justice Jon Wilcox said Gableman's nine years on the court have helped lead to the restoration of the rule of law in Wisconsin.
"His opinions are clear and concise reflections of law, which also reflect the humility necessary to give proper deference to the collective will of the citizens of Wisconsin," Wilcox said. "I am happy to note that over the past fifteen years, I have come to know Mike not only as a colleague, but as a friend. As such, I have come to know his sense of public service as well as his great sense of humor. And while he takes his work seriously, he doesn't take himself that way."
Some liberal viewpoints were not so complimentary.
One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross said Gableman could not have won re-election and so conservatives wanted to rally around a different candidate.
"Gableman's 2008 campaign, in which he ran the most racist ad in the history of Wisconsin politics, was the start of a sad era in which the court became beholden to special interests and conservative extremism," Ross said. "Gableman has displayed an appalling lack of ethics in taking free legal services to defend himself, voted to block reforms to clean up the court and all the while toed the line for the big money and corporate special interests that spent huge sums to put him on the bench. It's no surprise that after a decade of corruption and incompetence, Mike Gableman doesn't want to face voters."
Knowing the public has lost faith in the court, Ross said conservatives are trying not to change their ways but to change the name on the ballot instead.
"Reports that Gableman may step down mid-term and allow Walker to appoint a new justice who will continue putting conservative politics before the people of Wisconsin are deeply troubling," Ross said. "However, that sort of partisan scheming appears to be the new playbook for Walker and Republicans."
While Gableman did not say whether he would serve out his term, a spokesman for the justice told various media he believed it was his intention to do so.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning echoed Ross's claim that Gableman did not want to face voters.
"After the success progressives had in the 2017 spring elections, it is no surprise that justice Michael Gableman has reportedly decided to not run for re-election next year," Laning said. "In April's spring elections, 74 percent of the candidates the Democratic Party worked with won their elections, including Tony Evers' massive statewide victory."
Powered by the success of local organizing and the strength of grassroots groups around the state, Laning said Democrats are ramping up their efforts and she said conservative candidates are clearly intimidated by the strength of the Democratic operation.
"It is great to see candidates stepping up to run for the Supreme Court who will restore fairness and impartiality to the high court," she said.
According to his bio, Gableman was born in West Allis in 1966 and graduated from New Berlin West High School in 1984 and from Ripon College in 1988. He taught history at George Washington High School in the Milwaukee Public Schools and graduated from Hamline University School of Law in 1993. He then served as a law clerk at the district court level in Minnesota. He worked his way up as an assistant district attorney and then served as district attorney of Ashland County.
In 2002, he was elected circuit court judge for Burnett County, winning 78 percent of the vote, his biography states. While in Burnett County, he established an inmate community service program, a drug and alcohol court, and a restorative justice program for which he served as chairman of the board for six years.
He also taught three semesters as an adjunct professor of law at Hamline University School of Law and has spoken throughout the state about the Wisconsin court system.
In his election statement, Gableman said he would always have a special place in his heart for the people of Burnett County.
"With their help, I led the implementation of innovations such as the county's first Drug and Alcohol Court, the first Restorative Justice Program, and both the inmate and juvenile justice community service programs," he said.
Together, Gableman said, they helped save and improve the lives of many.
"As I reflect on this chapter of my life coming to a close, I am more hopeful than ever in the triumph of the rule of law in Wisconsin," Gableman said. "And I know I will be forever blessed to have been granted the opportunity to serve the great people of this state."
Most recently, Gableman was part of a conservative majority that rejected a plan that would have required justices to recuse themselves from cases in which they had received contributions of $10,000 or more from a party or lawyer in the case.
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