The two candidates for Waupaca County Circuit Court judge addressed questions of character, philosophy and experience at a forum Wednesday, March 12, at the Manawa Masonic Center.
Vicki Taggatz Clussman and Keith Steckbauer answered about 20 questions from the moderator, attorney David Forseth.
Steckbauer said Gov. Scott Walker appointed him after Judge John Hoffmann retired in November 2013, “with the expectation there would not be an appointment.”
However, Walker decided to appoint a Waupaca County judge a month prior to February’s primary election.
Steckbauer said he believes the governor appointed him is because he brings things to the table that the other candidates did not.
He noted that in addition to handling criminal cases, circuit court judges, like private practice attorneys, are responsible for a wide variety of civil cases.
Steckbauer pointed to his membership on the boards of a bank, a hospital and the New London School District, and said, “All of those things I have done have made me ready to make decisions.”
Clussman told those at the forum that she moved to Waupaca in 1987 to work as an assistant district attorney for Waupaca County.
She said she raised four children, the youngest of whom is now a senior at Waupaca High School.
While the majority of her cases have involved criminal prosecution, Clussman said she was initially assigned to handle paternity, child support and other civil cases that came into the district attorney’s office.
She said she has been responsible for prosecuting some of the county’s most serious cases, including homicide and child sexual assault.
“I’ve sought and received some of the lengthiest sentences that have been handed down over the last 25 years,” Clussman said.
“As a prosecutor, my job really is to get law enforcement referrals, look at the evidence that’s presented, apply the law to that evidence and then try to seek justice,” Clussman said. “I don’t think there’s another job that really mirrors the role of the judge as much as that of a prosecutor.”
When asked what she thinks a judge’s most important personal quality should be, Clussman said, “I think the most important characteristic for a judge, above anything else, is to be fair and try to be impartial and equitable to all the parties.”
Clussman said her goal as prosecutor has been both to seek justice for victims and to help defendants turn their lives around.
“I think it’s the ability to effectively listen,” Steckbauer said in response to the character question.
He described the experience of a private practice attorney meeting a client with a novel situation, a problem or conflict that needs resolution.
“They don’t have law enforcement putting together a big packet of information for them,” Steckbauer said.
An attorney or a judge must listen “not just to the words that people are saying, but listen to what people are saying in terms of body language, expressions, physicality” in order to find out what people really need, he said.
“Yes, I agree you need to be fair,” Steckbauer said. “But I think if we are not listening to people, truly listening to people, I don’t know if we’re going to be in a position to make good decisions for them.”
When asked about the growing number of self-represented litigants in civil cases, Steckbauer said he supported proposals by the Wisconsin Supreme Court to change rules to allow different orders of testimony.
“Instead of formal procedures that we are used to, of question-answer, interrogation-type stuff, which isn’t necessarily a great vehicle to ever get to the truth in a family law matter anyway … this rule is going to allow people to do narrative testimony, to allow greater hearsay, to allow just greater informality, giving the judge, the court the ability to decide how the information is presented,” Steckbauer said.
By loosening the rules regarding how and what testimony is presented, Steckbauer said it would make it easier for judges to understand what the real issues are when a self-represented litigant appears in court.
Clussman said she thinks the Waupaca County clerk of courts office does a good job of helping people without attorneys navigate the system by providing them with forms and information.
“When we have unrepresented individuals in court, I think the courts have to give them a certain amount of leeway, knowing that unrepresented people are not familiar with the rules of criminal procedure or civil procedure,” Clussman said.
The candidates were also asked to explain their judicial philosophy.
“What a judge needs to do is take the facts presented to them, apply the law to the facts of the case, and make a decision based on that,” Clussman said.
“I’m a little bit of an originalist, but I do know that our laws change and develop over time,” Clussman said, noting that laws change as society changes.
Steckbauer described himself as “a judicial originalist and a conservative in the sense that we have texts that matter. They’re the statutes. They’re the Constitution.”
While recognizing that the court has some discretion, “Everything a judge does has to be grounded legally and factually iln the application of a statute and that statute has to be grounded legally in the Constitution,” Steckbauer said. “If the rules change, they’re not really rules.”
The 90-minute forum can be viewed at Win-TV Waupaca.