MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A prosecutor asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday to reopen his lawsuit challenging Gov. Scott Walker’s contentious collective bargaining law, contending a justice who voted to dismiss the suit earlier this year got free legal help from the firm defending the law.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne argued in filings with the court that it should vacate its earlier decision, reconsider the case and disqualify Justice Michael Gableman from participating if he won’t recuse himself.
Wisconsin’s ethics code prohibits state officials from accepting free gifts, and the judicial ethics code bars judges from accepting gifts from anyone who is likely to appear before them.
“Reasonable, well-informed people would reasonably question Justice Gableman’s ability to be impartial under the facts presented here,” Ozanne wrote. “Respectfully, any litigant in any case deserves to have his case heard by a judge who has not secretly received a valuable gift from the other side’s lawyer.”
Gableman’s attorney, Vin Dinh, didn’t immediately return a message late Friday afternoon. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week that he doesn’t believe the free legal services amounted to a gift.
Walker’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie, issued a one-sentence response by email late Friday afternoon, saying only that “we are confident the Supreme Court got it right the first time.”
Ozanne initially filed the lawsuit in March, alleging Republican lawmakers violated open meetings laws when they convened a committee to revise the collective bargaining measure without proper public notice. The meeting came during the height of massive around-the-clock protests at the Capitol against the legislation, which eliminated most public workers’ union rights.
The Michael Best and Friedrich law firm and the state Justice Department defended the law. The case eventually landed in the Supreme Court. The court’s four-justice conservative majority ultimately upheld the law, saying legislative rules trumped the open meetings law.
Gableman had retained the Michael Best and Friedrich firm to defend him in a 2008 ethics case stemming from one of his campaign ads. The ad accused his opponent, then-incumbent Justice Louis Butler, of finding a loophole for a sex offender who went on to molest another child. It didn’t mention that Butler failed to get the offender out of prison early and that the offender committed the new crime after he had served his sentence.
Word surfaced earlier this month that Gableman signed a contingency agreement with the law firm that called for him to pay attorneys’ fees only if he prevailed in the case, much like promises injury lawyers make to clients not to collect payment unless they win the case. The Supreme Court ultimately deadlocked 3-3 on whether the ad violated the ethics code, which meant he didn’t lose or win the case and didn’t have to pay the firm’s attorneys for their services.
Public sector unions have filed three other, pending lawsuits challenging the collective bargaining law. Two are in federal court. The third is in Dane County Circuit Court.