Candidates discuss justice
Nielsen, Hendrickson speak at forum
By Scott Bellile
After a heated 2016 presidential election, locals may notice a lack of mudslinging in the Waupaca County Circuit Court judicial race.
Last week, candidates Troy Nielsen and Eric Hendrickson made it clear at a judges’ forum that they know each other on a first-name basis. Both are on the April 4 ballot.
“One of the things we pledged when we started this is that we would a gentlemanly campaign,” Hendrickson said. “And I think we have. We’ve intended to run a campaign that Waupaca County can be proud of. This county means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to Troy.
“Troy and I have each kind of come before people and said the same thing: ‘Either one of us would be good; I would be better,’ and we say it for different reasons.”
The men offered those reasons at the March 21 forum held at New London’s Washington Center. The winner in April’s election will replace Judge Philip Kirk, who is retiring.
The following are excerpts from questions they answered at the event, moderated by New London-Weyauwega Joint Municipal Court Judge Laurie Shaw.
Eric Hendrickson grew up in Wisconsin Rapids. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business finance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984 and a law degree from Madison in 1987.
During the first 11 years of his career, he was a business lawyer and civil trial attorney in Wausau.
He moved to Waupaca in 1998 and has worked for Werner, Johnson & Hendrickson in New London and Waupaca since 1999. He focuses on family law and often represents children. He has worked little in criminal law but is 1-0 as an OWI prosecutor.
He was invited back to UW-Madison this year to teach a lawyer skills course.
Troy Nielsen was born and raised in Racine and now lives in Scandinavia. Nielsen has worked for the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office out of Stevens Point for almost a decade. Criminal law is his primary background, as he’s handled approximately 3,000 criminal cases in Waupaca County.
“The reason that it’s important to have that kind of background as a judge is that our judges handle, give or take, 50 to 70 percent of their cases are in the form of criminal cases,” he said.
Nielsen has also worked cases related to juvenile delinquency, child abuse and mental health.
What makes now the right time for you to run as a judge?
Nielsen said Waupaca County has seen lots of change in its leadership recently. At the same time, it battles a significant drug crisis.
“It’s a problem that I think caught a lot of people off guard,” he said.
Nielsen attends heroin task force meetings during his off hours in hopes of devising a way to curb demand. He serves on the seven-member team developing a drug court and wants to steer further positive change for the county.
“I’ve got the experience and the ways of dealing with the issues that our county is really struggling with now in trying to make changes,” Nielsen said.
Hendrickson said after three decades in law, he is seasoned to become a judge. He has handled a variety of types of cases.
“We get better as we get older because we’ve seen more and we’ve done more. What you’re looking for in a judge is knowledge. I think I’ve got that. You’re looking for even-keeled temperament. I think I’ve got that. You’re looking at decision-making ability. I think I’ve been showing in my work the last decade particularly that I have that,” Hendrickson said.
What is an area that needs attention you would like to focus on if elected as our next judge?
Hendrickson said the judges need to work together to educate the public on how they determine sentences for convicted criminals, as there is an “often misguided” community perception that sentences are too light.
“There was an outrage, a public outrage that precipitated the change of our district attorney. There is outrage that manifests itself almost every case that comes up. And I’m not blaming anyone in particular,” Hendrickson said. You can’t look at the results of a particular case if you haven’t sat through the entire case.”
He wants the public to learn the factors that go into determining sentences and that “it’s not catch and release.”
Nielsen said judges are often rushed to determine, with little information, whether someone should be released from custody the day after he or she receives a criminal charge. There are solutions Waupaca County is not using.
“It’s a very archaic system that we use because there are many assessment and evaluation tools that other counties are using to help guide our judges and our prosecutors and our defense attorneys on what we should do with somebody, based on static factors like residence, stability, number of times arrested, things like that,” Nielsen said.
What are your feelings about rehabilitation?
Nielsen said rehabilitation is the goal of everybody who works in criminal justice, but sometimes it is necessary to let the criminal serve a sentence first in order to protect the public.
Rehabilitation “should be used smartly and wisely. Because at the end of the day, our county has some rehabilitative-related services, soon to be drug court and probation and intensive outpatient program for alcohol abuse offered by the Department of Health and Human Services, but those services are limited. So we gotta be smart with who we choose to put in those rehabilitative services,” Nielsen said.
Hendrickson said society believes in second chances, and rehabilitation can benefit criminals. But for repeat offenders who drain tax dollars and county resources, compassion runs low by the fourth or fifth attempt to turn around.
“We have to figure out who are good candidates for this rehabilitation. Do we have first-time offenders? Do we have people that are showing genuine remorse? Do we have people that have been in programs and failed before?” Hendrickson said.
“Because if these are people that fail again and again and again, and we see them all the time, and the first thing is they tell their lawyer, ‘Well, I’ll go into treatment,’ you know, the proof’s in the pudding,” Hendrickson said.
We know that the laws ultimately dictate a judge’s rulings. What are some ways that a judge can make a positive impact while on the bench or has the ability to use their own discretion?
Hendrickson said judges make all the decisions in family law, such as divorce, child custody and adoption cases.
In criminal law, typically juries decide innocence or guilt and the judge decides the sentence. In determining the sentencing, a judge will look at factors like if the defendant is remorseful, violent or a repeat offender.
Nielsen agreed with Hendrickson’s statements and added: “It’s important to get the temperature of the community. I mean, just because I have discretion as a judge to do theoretically anything I want within reason of the law, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what the community wants.”
Nielsen said he would like to host lunches with the community where he could learn the people’s values and desires. “I think sometimes judges get too caught up in their chambers … and aren’t really in tune with what people care about.”