By Andy Kroll - Mother Jones
THE 30-SECOND TV SPOT is stark and brutal. First it shows the bespectacled face of candidate Louis Butler, then a grainy mug shot of an ex-con. "Louis Butler worked to put criminals on the street," the narrator warns, "like Reuben Lee Mitchell, who raped an 11-year-old girl with learning disabilities." After Mitchell's release from prison, the narrator continues, he raped again. "Can Wisconsin families feel safe with Louis Butler?"
This attack ad wasn't from a bitterly fought congressional race. It was from a 2008 campaign for state Supreme Court justice—a position that until recently was considered above the fray of partisan politics. Butler, the first African American Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin history, was defending his seat against a trial court judge whose campaign tactic recalled the GOP's infamous Willie Horton hit job on Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential campaign. Long before ascending to his state's highest court, Butler had been assigned as Reuben Lee Mitchell's public defender—he wasn't the judge in the case, as the nasty ad implied.
Butler's opponent, Michael Gableman, had been showered with campaign donations from business leaders, who were keenly aware of Butler's role in two decisions. One was a 4-3 ruling to strike down a $350,000 limit on so-called pain-and-suffering damages in malpractice suits. The other held that if an individual harmed by lead paint exposure couldn't identify the producer, then multiple paint companies could be held liable under a legal theory known as "risk contribution."