Reality Check: Examining Supreme Court Justice’s Campaign Ad

The ads are coming fast and furious now in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race and viewers are finally seeing TV time purchased by the campaigns themselves.

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In this installment of “Reality Check,” WISC-TV examines an ad run by Supreme Court candidate Louis Butler. Appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle in 2004, incumbent Justice Butler has started running ads leading up to the April 1 election.

In his second ad, Butler paints himself on the side of the common man — a judge working for victims. However, WISC-TV finds some of the decisions that he mentions in the ad need further explanation.

“This courtroom is a battleground between right and wrong. I’m Justice Louis Butler. I work for you on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Over 200 judges and groups representing 18,000 law officers endorse Justice Louis Butler,” the ad says.

Butler does have the support of a litany of judges, although according to WISC-TV’s calculations, the groups listed in the ad total less than 18,000 law enforcement officers.

The crux of the ad claims that Butler is helping the little guy.

“He ruled for the widows of ironworkers killed when they were sent into unsafe conditions,” the ad says.

This claim is true. Butler did rule with the majority of the court on the Miller Park crane collapse decision. In that case, a jury had awarded the widows of three victims of the collapse $85.6 million in a lawsuit against Mitsubishi Heavy industries. An appeals court reversed that decision, saying the business showed no malice in its actions.

The state Supreme Court — including Butler — reversed that decision. The court ruled that Mitsubishi showed disregard for the victims’ rights by advising workers to lift the park’s roof in high winds. The case was sent back to lower court, and both sides eventually settled out of court.

Another claim in the ad, however, needs further clarification.

“And for the families of children poisoned by unsafe products,” the ad says.

Butler authored the court’s majority opinion of a case dealing with lead paint injuries in 2005. Two lower courts had said a Milwaukee family couldn’t sue paint manufacturers if the family couldn’t prove which company manufactured the paint.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision, extending liability to the paint companies saying that they’d all made and promoted a product that was a danger to the public.

It was a landmark ruling in Wisconsin, but two justices disagreed. One said the decision could hold companies liable for a product made years before that might or might not have actually caused injury to someone.

The other went so far as to say the “consequences of the majority opinion may be staggering for Wisconsin industry and commerce.”

Butler wasn’t alone in his opinion. The majority of the court ruled in his favor. The margin was 4-2.

“I’ve put criminals behind bars and I’ve ruled against big corporations when they harm the public. It all comes down to the difference between right and wrong,” Butler said in the ad.

Butler makes a point of saying that he has a record of holding big business accountable in this last part of the ad.

Based on the facts of the cases, it’s up to voters to decide whether that’s the case.