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Lawmaker calls for investigation of court justice (UPDATE)

Michael Gableman

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A government watchdog group and a Democratic state lawmaker on Tuesday called for investigations into free legal services Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman received from a prominent law firm.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and state Sen. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, called for the state’s Judicial Commission to investigate whether Gableman violated ethics codes. Hebl also asked the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections and campaign finance laws, to investigate if credible complaints are made.

Gableman did not immediately return messages left for him with a Supreme Court spokesman. A message left at the Judicial Commission was also not returned.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported that Gableman received free legal services from Michael Best & Friedrich and that he cast deciding votes in two cases where parties were represented by that firm.

Gableman was in the majority in the 4-3 ruling earlier this year that upheld the law pushed by Gov. Scott Walker that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for public workers.

Michael Best & Friedrich worked for the state and Walker’s administration defending the law in that case. Gableman also had the deciding vote in an opinion this March that sided with a firm’s client against Milwaukee over tax assessments.

Michael Best & Friedrich previously defended Gableman in an ethics case, but Gableman never paid them for their work. Michael Best general counsel Jonathan Margolies sent a letter to the court saying Gableman had not been required to pay the attorney fees.

In his letter, Hebl said the arrangement raised “serious ethical issues.”

State law bars public officials from receiving anything of value for free because of their position. The state’s judicial ethics code also prevents judges from accepting gifts from those who are likely to appear before them.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that since the firm started representing Gableman in the ethics case in July 2008, Gableman has participated in nine cases in which the court voted on substantive issues involving Michael Best clients. Gableman ruled in those clients’ favor in five of those cases — more than any other justice.

In a 10th case, Gableman recused himself. In that matter, Michael Best itself was sued, making the firm a party to the case, rather than just a firm representing clients.

There are five cases currently before the court in which a party is being represented by Michael Best.

Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative public interest law firm, said determining whether a judge must recuse after receiving legal service depends on whether he had recused himself from some past cases, how long ago the law firm had represented him and what the work involved, among other things.

“That’s a judgment call,” Esenberg said.

But two well-known legal ethics experts — New York University law professor Stephen Gillers and Indiana University law professor Charles Geyh — said they believed Gableman should not participate in cases involving Michael Best.

Gableman joined the Supreme Court in 2008. Two months later, he faced a formal ethics charge by the state Judicial Commission accusing him of lying in a campaign ad. The high court split 3-3 in June 2010 on whether he lied in the ad and violated the judicial ethics code. The Judicial Commission suspended its pursuit of the case because of the deadlock.

Gableman retained Michael Best attorney Eric McLeod and Indiana attorney Jim Bopp to fight the accusation.

The firm worked on a contingency that said they would be paid only if Gableman prevailed in the ethics case and was then able to persuade the state to pay his legal bills. Gableman was responsible for the firm’s out-of-pocket expenses.

Michael Best has declined to state the value of the work, but other attorneys have said it was likely worth tens of thousands of dollars. Bopp has declined to say whether Gableman paid him.

Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

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