Gableman’s contempt and the destruction of democracy

June 11, 2022 7:00 am
Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman leads the partisan review of the 2020 election. (YouTube | Office of the Special Counsel)

Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman in a video promoting the partisan review of the 2020 election. (YouTube | Office of the Special Counsel)

It’s not really a coincidence that, the morning after the first, explosive public hearing by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman — the man appointed by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to lead the partisan probe of the 2020 election in Wisconsin — was held in contempt of court.

Gableman’s contempt for the rule of law and the institutions of our democracy, which he demonstrated in his bombastic, sarcastic performance in Dane County circuit court on Friday, is the same style of demagoguery practiced by Donald Trump.

Like Trump, Gableman is a narcissist and a bully whose taboo-breaking nastiness — posturing as an injured hero of a popular movement who is somehow standing up for the little guy by displaying sneering disrespect for public officials and the courts —  is part of a more general, dangerous trend.

Trump, according to House investigators, encouraged a murderous mob to attack the U.S. Capitol to try to prevent the certification of the 2020 presidential election. Gableman has furthered Trump’s efforts with his baseless investigation, pushing the discredited idea that there was massive voter fraud in Wisconsin. While leading his publicly funded probe that has cost Wisconsin taxpayers almost a million dollars, he has refused  to turn over records  — the issue for which Judge Frank Remington held him in contempt.

Even aside from the mounting evidence that Wisconsin Republicans played a major role in the conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 election, the coarsening of civic dialogue that Gableman represents is, in itself, a threat. That threat was already evident long before Trump was elected, when Gableman, the most overturned judge in the state, was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court after a scandalous, racist campaign and brought his disdainful, know-nothing style to an institution led by the late Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, one of the most respected jurists in the nation. Gableman’s rude treatment of Abrahamson was stomach-turning, as was his successful drive to erect a veil of secrecy around court business — which conveniently cloaked discussions of his conflicts in not recusing himself from cases involving his donors. Gableman’s only defense of the policy change was to say the open meetings were an “experiment” whose “time has passed.” Things have gone downhill ever since.

The footage of mayhem at the Capitol aired Thursday night during prime time by the House committee investigating  the Jan. 6th attack is a natural outgrowth of the dangerous demagoguery practiced by Trump and Gableman.

Contempt is the right word for it: Contempt for the truth, contempt for democracy, contempt for due process, and, finally, contempt for civility and common decency and even the physical safety of citizens, legislators and public servants, including the Capitol police who were attacked and killed.

House investigators are seeking to show that Trump was at the center of a far-reaching conspiracy to overturn election results. Wisconsin’s fake electors and the fake Gableman investigation are an important part of that conspiracy.

It’s a short road from the assault on civil society launched by Gableman and Trump to mayhem. Their rhetoric encourages the destruction of peaceful civic life.

Consider Gableman’s appearance Friday, when, after 45 minutes of argument by his lawyers that he should not have to testify at all, he finally took the stand. He proceeded to deliver a bombastic speech, refused to answer questions and denounced the judge, who, he declared, without evidence, “has abandoned his role as a neutral magistrate and is acting as an advocate.”

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Frank Remington directed Gableman to stop his filibuster. “You’ve had a long and storied career, serving the public as … let me finish please,” he said, as Gableman interrupted him. 

“Sure, if you’ll let me finish,” Gableman shot back.

That’s not how it works. Remington reminded him, “I do not need to tell you how I expect you to control yourself and the behavior that I expect of a witness on this stand.”

After a brief further exchange, Gableman said, “You have a right to conduct and control your courtroom, judge, but you don’t have a right to act as an advocate for one party over the other. I want a personal counsel if you are putting jail on the table. I want a personal attorney to represent me personally. I will not answer any more questions. I see you have a jail officer here. You want to put me in jail, Judge Remington, I’m not going to be railroaded.”

All of this talk of putting Gableman in jail was precipitated by Remington’s instruction in an earlier hearing about the legal consequences of willfully withholding evidence in contempt of court, which includes, he explained Friday, reading from the Wisconsin Judicial Bench Book, “imprisonment six months or as long as contempt continues, whichever is shorter …  in addition to payment to compensate loss or injury suffered by a party … not to exceed $2,000 per day for each day a contempt continues.”

Despite Gableman’s histrionics, “At no time did I suggest that that was a sanction that I intended to impose,” Remington added.

The irony, of course, is that Gableman himself filed a petition in the Waukesha County court asking that city staff, election workers and the mayors of Green Bay Madison and Racine be thrown in jail if they don’t comply with his subpoenas, including demands that they give testimony in secret, closed-door sessions the mayors said were improper. 

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the city administrator of Kenosha, upon answering Gableman’s subpoena, appeared only to find that he was to be deposed by a lawyer who was not licensed to practice in Wisconsin, upon which he left.

This kind of bumbling is par for the course in Gableman’s Office of Special Counsel.

As the Examiner’s Henry Redman reports, Gableman has repeatedly disregarded open records requests and his lawyer has said that he regularly deletes records he deems “irrelevant” to his review — which so far has turned up nothing more than baseless accusations of election fraud. 

In a separate lawsuit seeking records he has so far refused to release, Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn said he had “run amok” and “gone rogue” as he continued to disregard the state’s open records laws. 

What is Gableman hiding? Keystone Kops-style incompetence, wasting money and coming up with nothing are the hallmarks of his ridiculous probe, which he and Vos justify as an effort to increase “transparency” and public confidence in Wisconsin elections. We already know Gableman used the taxpayers’ funds to attend a conspiracy theory conference hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and to visit Arizona to inspect its discredited audit. 

After throwing his tantrum on the stand Friday Gableman invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself and swept out of the courtroom. No one arrested him. His gambit worked — he was able to continue withholding information. Later, Remington issued an order holding him in contempt. 

American Oversight, the group that has been suing Gableman for information, issued a statement: “Mr. Gableman’s outrageous and disrespectful conduct in court today removed any last shred of credibility from this partisan charade. Far from increasing transparency and instilling greater confidence in the 2020 elections, by repeatedly flouting Wisconsin transparency laws, Mr. Gableman and Speaker Vos have shamed their offices and undermined their own investigation.”

Undermining public trust in democratic institutions and sowing chaos and distrust is actually what the investigation is all about. And that’s a growing problem for all of us.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.