The group that led the fight for paid sick days in Milwaukee has filed an ethics charge against a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, after learning that he had accepted free legal services worth tens of thousands of dollars from the same law firm that appeared before him to argue against paid sick days in Milwaukee.
Shortly after 68 percent of Milwaukee voters passed a paid sick leave ordinance in 2008, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), represented by Michael Best & Friedrich, filed a lawsuit to overturn the new law. When the case reached the Supreme Court in October 2010, Justice Gableman voted in favor of the MMAC, to uphold an injunction prohibiting implementation of the sick days ordinance.
Unbeknownst to 9to5, between July of 2008 and June of 2010, Justice Gableman had accepted the free legal services from Michael Best & Friedrich to defend himself against charges of misconduct by the Judicial Commission and before the Supreme Court. Those charges stemmed from a Willie Horton-type ad Gableman used in 2008 against his opponent for the Court, the incumbent and only African-American justice.
Had Justice Gableman recused himself from the paid sick days case, the 3-3 judgment which deadlocked the Supreme Court would have been avoided. Without Gableman’s vote, a 3-2 Supreme Court majority would have overturned the injunction, enabling more than 120,000 Milwaukee families to receive paid sick days.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Judicial Commission against Justice Gableman when they learned of the free legal services. The new complaint by 9to5 Milwaukee -- representing a group of Wisconsinites directly hurt by decisions in cases where the Justice should have recused himself -- went to another body, the Government Accountability Board. The complaint alleges the Justice violated the state code of ethics and. seeks a full Board investigation, civil penalties and referral to a District Attorney for criminal prosecution.
“Justice Gableman has compromised the trust of the Wisconsinites he was elected to serve,” said Dana Schultz, Director of 9to5 Milwaukee, which led a large and diverse coalition in the fight for paid sick days. “By not disclosing his acceptance of this valuable gift and by not recusing himself from the decision on sick leave, Justice Gableman undermined the ability of voters of Milwaukee to receive a fair and impartial hearing before the court.”
Tonisha Howard, a mother of three who lives in Milwaukee, described what the lack of paid sick days has meant in her life. “Because I needed to take my two-year-old son to the emergency room for a severe asthma attack, I lost my job,” said Tonisha. “Having paid sick days would’ve let me keep my job and support my family without needing additional assistance.” Following the loss of that job, Tonisha has had to work two part-time jobs, neither of which offers paid sick days.
“If Justice Gableman had recused himself from the case, as he should have, hard-working Milwaukee families would have had the paid sick days they needed and voted for,” Schultz said.
A leading national expert on judicial ethics affirmed the extent of Justice Gableman’s impropriety. “It is hard not to see the fee agreement between Justice Gableman and the Michael Best & Friedrich firm as a thinly disguised gift,” said William Hodes, in a letter to the Government Accountability Board that accompanied 9to5’s complaint.
In addition to seeking a civil fine and forfeiture for failure to disclose the gift, Hodes said the Board may make a criminal referral for the other violations to the appropriate prosecuting authority. Such a penalty, Hodes notes, “may be especially appropriate in this case in order to deter future similar assaults on the impartiality and integrity of the courts.”