Judge Kirk not seeking re-election in 2017
By Robert Cloud
Two attorneys have filed to run for Waupaca County Circuit Court judge.
Judge Philip Kirk, who plans to retire, will not seek re-election in 2017.
Seeking to replace him are Troy Nielsen and Eric Hendrickson.
Born and raised in Racine, Nielsen graduated in 2005 from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“When I was an undergrad, I thought I would go into law enforcement,” Nielsen said. “I had a professor who was a lawyer, and he encouraged me to go into law school.”
Nielsen attended Hamline Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received his law degree in the spring of 2008.
He passed his bar exam in the fall of 2008 and began working for the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office out of Stevens Point in January 2009.
“There were two things I wanted to do, public service and helping people,” Nielsen said. “The best way I could see to accomplish both of those things was as a public defender.”
Nielsen said he learned the importance of public service from his grandmother, Phyllis Nielsen, who was the clerk of courts in Racine County.
As a public defender, Nielsen spends most of his time serving clients in Waupaca County.
“At any time, I have at least 100 open cases,” Nielsen said. “I’ve handled approximately 3,000 cases in my career.”
Initially, Nielsen did not plan to remain in the area. He expected to relocate to the southeastern part of Wisconsin where his family lived.
“Then I met the person who ultimately became my wife,” Nielsen said.
Angela (Reynolds) Nielsen is from Iola and currently works for Waupaca County Health and Human Services.
“When I met her and fell in love, I couldn’t foresee myself raising my children anywhere other than Scandinavia,” Nielsen said.
The Nielsens have a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.
As a public defender, Nielsen represents defendants who cannot afford to hire attorneys.
He is also responsible for defending juvenile delinquents and children over age 12 who have been abused by their parents or step-parents.
Public defenders serve as advocates for children in cases involving protective services.
“Let’s say a 14-year-old girl is alleged to have been sexually abused by her father. The county may want to place the child in foster care and limit the parents’ access to the child,” Nielsen said. “I represent the child. If the child objects to being placed with grandma or objects to being placed in foster care, it’s my job to advocate for the interests and expectations of the child.”
The public defender’s office also handles Chapter 51 petitions that order people into mental health services.
Nielsen noted that Chapter 51 cases involve the county forcing a person to take medication, obtain counseling and even be institutionalized.
“Public defenders make sure they are not locked up in a mental institution without due process,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen said his experience as a public defender has helped him learn to be patient and to listen to people’s concerns.
“Doing all the cases I’ve done and the various ways I’ve represented people, I think those experiences have given me the ability and insight to help the citizens of Waupaca County deal with their legal issues,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen believes common sense is nearly as important as knowledge of the law when it comes to helping people resolve legal issues.
A 1980 graduate of Lincoln High School in Wisconsin Rapids, Hendrickson earned his bachelor’s degree in business finance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984 and his law degree from the UW Law School in Madison in 1987.
He then moved to Wausau, where he spent three years specializing in business law with a small private firm, then worked eight years in-house for Wausau Insurance.
While working on a file in Wausau, Hendrickson met Waupaca attorney Steve Hansen, who persuaded him to move to Waupaca in March 1998.
“I worked with Steve Hansen for about a year and a half, then I began working with Tom Johnson in New London in September 1999,” Hendrickson said. “We have offices in New London and Waupaca. I spend the bulk of my week in Waupaca.”
Hendrickson said he has not done any criminal cases. Most of his work for the past 10 years has involved family law – divorces custody, adoptions, child protective cases and guardian ad litem work.
“In a contested custody case, I’m appointed by the court to represent the best interests of the children,” Hendrickson said. “That was a niche that just developed because people liked the job I do and I liked doing it.”
As a guardian ad litem, Hendrickson said he is required to listen to both sides, take evidence from both sides and make value judgments.
“The judges are counting on me to make good recommendations to them, so I take that very seriously,” Hendrickson said.
One of the most important characteristics of a good judge is the ability to listen to people and give sound reasons for a decision, Hendrickson said.
“People are in our justice system at terrible times in their lives,” Hendrickson said. “I think we owe it to them to listen and try to get the decisoin correct. If people believe they have been heard and they know solid reasons for the decision, it makes tough news more palatable.”
Hendrickson is especially concerned with the growing drug problem in Waupaca County.
“My practice sees the consequences of drug problems early and often,” Hendrickson said. “So many of the broken families and placement problems involve drugs and alcohol.”
As a judge, Hendrickson said he would work to be consistent and even handed.
He believes Waupaca County’s plan to start a drug-treatment court will help those defendants who are ready to be helped.
“But there are repeat offenders who are just going to go out there and wreak havoc on the community,” Hendrickson said. He described the judge’s role as sifting and winnowing between those who are ready for help and those who are not ready.
Hendrickson said he has lived, worked and been active in the Waupaca community a long time and raised his family here.
“I think I’m ready at this point,” he said. “I know enough about the law, the county and the people to do a good job.”