Wisconsin Judge Files Defamation Case Over Political TV Ads

MILWAUKEE (CN) – A Wisconsin judge running for a seat on the state supreme court sued two conservative interest groups Friday, claiming they distributed TV ads with false claims about her past roles prosecuting and sentencing sex offenders in order to damage her campaign.

Jill Karofsky’s complaint filed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court charges that the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and the political mobilization branch of the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce trade association (WMC) created two demonstrably misleading advertisements that knowingly make false accusations about her being soft on crime with regard to two sex offender cases.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court room at the state Capitol building. (Photo via Royalbroil/Wikipedia)

The lawsuit has been assigned to Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Witkowiak, who was appointed by a Republican governor, and Karofsky is asking the court to order the groups to remove the ads from the airwaves and block them from creating any similar ads.

Karofsky is currently in a high-profile race against current conservative-leaning Justice Daniel Kelly for Kelly’s seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has taken a bitterly partisan tone despite the race being officially called nonpartisan. The contest is on the ballot for Wisconsin’s primary election originally set for April 7 but for which the absentee ballot receipt deadline has been delayed until April 13 by a federal judge in light of Covid-19 disruptions.

Karofsky, a Dane County Circuit Court judge, is represented in her suit by Christopher Meuler with the Milwaukee office of the Davis & Kuelthau firm.

According to Karofsky’s complaint, the first ad, posted to YouTube and disseminated to TV stations statewide on March 26, falsely asserts Karofsky was easy on sentencing in a sexual assault case prosecuted around 20 years ago while she was an assistant Dane County district attorney. The ad features “pictures of Judge Karofsky, small young children, an image of the case sentence, and ominous figures” along with claims that she “went easy on predators that committed unthinkable crimes,” according to her lawsuit.

The complaint argues Karofsky “had no involvement in or responsibility for the plea and/or sentence received” in that case, and “she made one and only one appearance in the case in July of 2001,” which was 16 months after the defendant entered a plea deal with a different judge.

The judge’s filing offers context that “because Karofsky was the most recent assistant district attorney to appear in the case, the Wisconsin CCAP record lists Judge Karofsky as the attorney of record.”

Politifact Wisconsin gave the WMC ad’s claims a “pants on fire” rating in late March, pointing out as Karofsky does that she was not the prosecutor on that case when the plea deal was made.

The same day Karofsky’s attorneys served WMC with a cease-and-desist letter over the ad, former Republican Governor Scott Walker tweeted it and commented that Karofsky was “dangerously soft on crime.” The tweet was still on Walker’s feed as of Friday afternoon.

The other ad referenced in Karofsky’s action, paid for by the RSLC and its judicial advocacy initiative, claims that she presided over a sex offender case in which she “went easy on a sexual predator that shot his girlfriend, allowing a deal that puts him back on the street.”

“While the voiceover plays, the advertisement shows images of Judge Karofsky, a dangerous-looking person, and a gun being shot,” the lawsuit states, adding that the ad implies the sex offender is currently on the street because of Karofsky’s adjudication.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” the complaint reads. Karofksy’s counsel goes on to point out that she sentenced the sex offender to eight years and that he is currently incarcerated.

State records confirmed Friday that the man, Arnold Thompson, is currently incarcerated at Redgranite Correctional Institute in central Wisconsin.

Karofsky’s campaign manager Tyler Hendricks said in a statement Friday, “We’ve given Dan Kelly’s allies enough time to pull these slanderous ads off of the air, but it’s clear they just don’t care about the facts.”

“No organization should get away with spending millions of dollars on ads they know are false,” Hendricks continued. “Wisconsin voters deserve better than this and we urge the court to take immediate action to stop this disgusting attack.”

The conservative interest groups both stood by their ads when asked for comment on Karofsky’s filing Friday.

“WMC stands by its First Amendment right to criticize the conduct of judges and prosecutors. We will continue to exercise this right, and notably, the request for an injunction is moot given that this specific communication is no longer being broadcast or otherwise made available,” said Nick Novak, WMC’s vice president of communications and marketing,

Stami Williams, RSLC’s communications director, similarly said that “candidate Karofsky is trying to use the legal system to silence legitimate criticism of her record as a judge. We stand by our ad.”

A letter sent to Karofsky’s counsel provided by Williams on Friday argues that the RSLC’s ad never said Thompson was “back on the street” and merely pointed out that Karofsky did not take an opportunity to reject a plea deal greatly reducing Thompson’s original sentence of over 60 years.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, over $2.5 million has been spent by outside groups on the race between Kelly and Karofsky, indicating the contest has broad importance to special interest groups with cash to burn.

Both candidates have received endorsements from marquee partisan figures. Karofsky has gotten the nod from liberals including current Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, while Kelly has been endorsed by fellow high court Justice Rebecca Bradley, the National Rifle Association and President Donald Trump.

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