WDC Files Ethics Complaint Against Supreme Court Justice

Free legal services violated rule barring gifts to state officials

December 21, 2011

Madison – Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman violated a state ethics code that prohibits state officials from receiving gifts when he got two years of free representation from a law firm, a complaint filed Wednesday by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign says.

The law firm Michael Best & Friedrich and its lawyer, Eric McLeod, represented Gableman from July 2008 through July 2010 in a judicial ethics complaint that accused the justice of lying about an opponent in a 2008 campaign ad. Gableman, who eventually defeated former Justice Louis Butler for a 10-year seat on the bench, was not found in violation of the judicial ethics code because the Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 on the case.

Michael Best & Friedrich has said a fee deal with Gableman required him to pay his legal bill only if he won his case and was reimbursed his attorney fees by the state. Legal experts say the law firm likely provided Gableman with tens of thousands of dollars worth of legal services.

The Democracy Campaign’s complaint filed with the Government Accountability Board, which enforces the state campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws, also accused Gableman of not listing the free legal services as a gift on his Statement of Economic Interest, which is a form filed yearly by most state officials that shows their income, debt and other financial relationships.

The complaint follows a Democracy Campaign request Tuesday asking the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which enforces ethics and other rules governing the conduct of judges, to investigate whether Gableman violated the judicial code of ethics that says judges cannot accept gifts from parties likely to appear before them in court.

Gableman has ruled on numerous cases on the high court involving clients represented by Michael Best & Friedrich since the law firm took his case in July 2008. The law firm currently has five cases before the court that Gableman is participating in. Last June, Gableman voted with the majority in a 4-3 decision that let Governor Scott Walker’s administration implement a law that slashed public employee collective bargaining rights. Michael Best & Friedrich represented the Walker administration in the case.

Complaint filed with GAB (pdf)