What makes a fair judge
Four candidates have filed nomination papers seeking election for Branch II Waupaca County Circuit Court judge.
Running for the seat vacated by former Judge John Hoffman are Keith Steckbauer, Edmund Jelinski, Vicki Clussman and Brenda Freeman.
Steckbauer was appointed by Gov. Scott Walker on Jan. 14 to fill the vacancy.
The two candidates receiving the most votes in the Feb. 18 primary will face off in the April 1 spring election.
The County Post contacted the four candidates and asked them to discuss what characteristics they believe a judge should have, what ethical dilemmas they have faced as attorneys, what issues a judge should consider during sentencing, who their role models have been and what they perceive as the greatest obstacles to justice.
Their answers will appear over the next two weeks in the County Post.
What personal characteristics do you think a judge needs to be more effective and more fair?
A judge needs to conduct him or herself in an exemplary fashion in all of their personal and professional affairs. There just can never be a question about how the judge’s choices affect his or her decisions.
He or she needs to be grounded in the community which he or she serves, not just by birth or address, but even more importantly by being involved in the life of a community. From those experiences a judge can better understand the values, beliefs and structure of the community.
If a judge has the above characteristics, listens and applies the law, he or she can speak for the community with authority and respect. My background, involvement and commitment provides me with that ability more than anyone else involved in this contest, as confirmed by my appointment to the bench by the governor over all of the others.
Judges often need to make equitable decisions that have major effects on the people before them. In a divorce, what happens to the children? In an injury case, what is the value of the injured parties loss? In a criminal case, what punishment will the defendant receive?
A judge needs to be thorough, patient, respectful, and above all, listen. These are complicated issues that can have life long ramifications. A judge needs to take the time to understand the facts of the case, give the parties the opportunity to be heard and make every effort to do the right thing.
A reputation for integrity is the most important characteristic a judge can have. In every dispute, someone loses. The courts have the trust of the community only as long as the community believes that the courts are deciding matters based on an unwavering dedication to fairness.
There are many characteristics of a fair and effective judge, and I believe Waupaca County has an important choice to make in determining who will be the best person to take over for retired Judge John P. Hoffmann.
First, a judge needs a strong sense of community value, garnered from years of living in the community. I have lived in Waupaca County for more than 26 years, and feel I have an understanding of the beliefs and values held by our citizens.
Second, I believe a judge needs independence, patience, a strong sense of right and wrong, an open mind, an ability to make tough decisions, an ability to listen, empathy and a strong sense of justice. She should be firm and tough when it’s called for, while remaining compassionate, understanding and humble.
Another important characteristic is legal ability. A new judge should have a great deal of trial experience, and should be very familiar with courtroom procedure. I have handled hundreds of jury trials and have cases in the Waupaca County courtrooms on a daily basis.
Another characteristic of a fair judge that voters should consider is a record and reputation for excellent character and integrity. These characteristics ensure she will make decisions based on the facts of a case and law to be applied. A judge with integrity sets aside personal prejudice and partisan political influences. I believe I have gained a reputation for fairness in the legal community.
Lastly, a good judge needs to have administrative ability. Judges handle hundreds of cases every year, and need to have the administrative skills to deal with the demands of long court lists and complex lawsuits. Working in the District Attorney’s Office has prepared me well for dealing with heavy case loads and the demands of the job.
As John F. Kennedy stated so well, “Ask not what your country can do for you” but “Ask what you can do for your country.” The judge needs to have strong personal beliefs about public service, ethics, accountability, responsibility, equality, democracy and equity.
Further, a judge must be wise, fair, experienced, unbiased, honest, excellent listener, ethical, intelligent, effective communicator, able to constantly triage crisis situations, analyze and solve problems. Most importantly the judge needs to have and use their common sense in addition to their specialized knowledge, training and experience.
The judges that are most loved are good listeners, unbiased, fair, and effectively communicate the reasons why they have made their decision based on the facts presented, the black letter of the law and what is right. Intelligence without common sense is disastrous. The judges that are the most hated are the ones that make decisions that defy reason and common sense.
When people come to court to resolve a problem or dispute, the judge needs to listen to the evidence, analyze the problem, resolve the problem by applying good old fashioned common sense and reason to the law and then communicating effectively a just and fair decision. In doing so effectively, both sides and any public bystander should walk away from the courtroom feeling that all have been treated fairly, justice was served, and that the system has integrity.
I believe that I have the A.C.E. to win this race and be a more effective and fair judge than the other candidates. A is for my Actions. C is for my Character. E is for my Experience.
In order to truly be able to be fair, the judge needs to know and understand what the community values. The judge needs to have had real life experiences with people from all walks of life. Because I am from, have lived and have been actively involved serving this community all of my life, if elected by my fellow citizens, I promise to work diligently to serve and uphold the public trust by being a fair, efficient, honest and effective judge.
Please describe an instance when you faced an ethical dilemma and how you resolved it.
When I was a young prosecutor, I discovered that my supervisor, the district attorney, was taking money in exchange for dismissing cases. I and others investigated these cases and informed the federal authorities. This resulted in two outcomes. I was fired and, two years later, the district attorney was indicted and imprisoned.
That two-year period was difficult. I was not generally believed and my career as a prosecutor was over. I knew this was a likely outcome of my actions but I believed that it was more important to do the right thing than protect my career. I still hold that belief. Being true to your ethical standards is the most important characteristic a person can have.
An ethical dilemma that I face as a prosecutor involves making charging decisions. There are times when I suspect that an individual is guilty of committing a crime, but don’t have enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. This is particularly difficult when innocent victims are demanding prosecution. There are times when I need to explain to a victim or a victim’s family why I can’t proceed on a case. It leaves them without restitution or any resolution to the crime.
A prosecutor can charge a person with committing a crime if they have probable cause that a crime took place, and that the individual charged is the one who committed the offense. But if that case proceeds to a jury trial, it needs to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
In certain cases, I have believed that the evidence was enough to establish probable cause and a complaint could be issued. However, if I feel that there is no further evidence that’s likely to be gathered in support of the complaint, it raises an ethical issue.
I resolve this conflict, as a judge must resolve any conflict. I look at the facts and apply the law to the facts. If after careful review of the case, I know proof beyond a reasonable doubt can’t be established, I will not file a criminal complaint even if I feel the individual is probably guilty. As a prosecutor, I have taken an oath to uphold the Wisconsin and U.S. Constitutions, and their application to the citizens of this county.
This is the story of my life. Every day in practicing law ethical dilemmas are presented constantly. If any attorney disagrees with my previous statement, they should not be practicing law. Law by its very nature is full of ethical quandaries which is why the job is stressful, difficult, takes specialized training and personal disposition to be able to be successful, effective and enjoyable without letting the job get to you or worse makes you go nuts.
All attorneys, including judges, are officers of the court and must abide by the law and the rules of professional conduct (Ethics Code). It came to my attention that another attorney I knew was allegedly violating the code. I did my own personal investigation, reviewed the evidence, researched the law, applied my knowledge, experience and common sense to assess the problem.
When I was personally satisfied that I felt there was a violation, I still searched for additional evidence and consulted with other professionals in confidence to assure myself that there was no “reasonable” doubt before I made a report to the appropriate authorities.
In Wisconsin all attorneys are required to be licensed and pay “bar dues” to have the license. One benefit is that there is an “800” number we can call to consult an attorney that only handles “ethics” consultations to be able to bounce ideas off of as to whether something is a violation or not.
Perhaps it is crude, but since I have developed an experienced methodical organizational process to problem solving which churns all of my skills, experience, intelligence, reason, moral compass and common sense into once place in my body, I tell everyone that “I go with my gut … My gut is usually never wrong or it leads me down the right path to try to always do what is right … Thankfully, despite my daily ethical dilemmas, my gut lets me sleep well at night.” I believe that I will still sleep well if elected as your judge.
In 20 years of representing families and individuals struggling with life challenges such as divorce or domestic violence, ethical issues periodically arise.
Whether a conflict of interest question or client ethical question, I have always followed the practice of researching the issue, reviewing the Supreme Court rules and contacting the State Bar Ethics Hotline if necessary.
Basically, I believe any tough choice should be made after review of the facts and consultation of the rules. If additional information is needed, my practice is to seek wise guidance and make the choice that I believe to be right.