Quest for justice
Four attorneys are running for Waupaca County Circuit Court judge in the Feb. 18 primary.
Seeking the seat recently vacated by retiring judge John Hoffmann are Vicki Clussman, Brenda Freeman, Keith Steckbauer and Edmund Jelinski.
The County Post contacted the four candidates and asked them to discuss their views on criminal sentencing, their own judicial role models and the obstacles to justice.
This is the second article in a two-part series on the candidates.
What are the most important issues that a judge should consider when sentencing a defendant who has been convicted of a felony?
There are many factors that go into sentencing a person convicted of a felony, including the gravity of the offense, the personal characteristics of the defendant and the protection of the public. These are the same factors prosecutors look at when making a sentencing recommendation to the court.
In determining the gravity of the offense, many things can be aggravating or mitigating factors. Some of these factors include a defendant’s cooperation or lack thereof with law enforcement, the extent of any injuries to the victim and the amount of pecuniary loss involved.
The characteristics of the defendant should also be considered, including the age and past record of the defendant. It is also important to consider the amount of remorse shown by the defendant, the steps taken by the defendant to correct the behavior and the likelihood of rehabilitation.
The protection of the public is an important consideration, and sometimes the only way to protect the public is to remove the defendant from the community for a period of time. Other times the public can be protected by rehabilitative services in the community. A judge should look at the impact the offense had on the victim and the community, and should seek to restore the victim whenever possible including an order for restitution.
A judge must fashion a sentence that protects the public with a mixture of punishment and rehabilitation considering the individual. In recent years studies have been done to determine that effectiveness of various sentencing options. Some of those studies are counter-intuitive, therefore it is necessary for a judge to be familiar with and experienced with criminal cases.
As a prosecutor, I have handled thousands of felony cases, and feel that I am more than adequately prepared to address any felony sentencing hearing.
In Wisconsin we have two classifications of crimes: misdemeanor and felony.
A misdemeanor, a less serious classification by the legislature, has the maximum incarceration in a county jail for usually less than a year. In a felony, which the legislature uses for more serious crimes, the defendant faces the possibility of imprisonment in a state prison for a year or more.
I feel that the following are, at a minimum, the most important issues a judge should consider when sentencing a defendant who has been convicted of a felony.
Protection of the public: The need to keep the public safe from the offender or if there is no or little safety concern can the defendant be monitored safely, efficiently and cost-effectively in the community rather than in prison.
Victim and societal impact: What impact has this crime had on the victim, their family, their community and society as a whole?
Community values: What does the community value and think about this crime? For example, should serious repeat child sex sffenders be locked up and the key thrown away? Adultery is still a crime on the books, but when last was there a prosecution for that?
Seriousness of the offense: Life in prison without the possibility of parole should be left for the most serious offenses such as murder and child sex offenses so as to not unduly depreciate the seriousness of the offense.
Character of the defendant: Remorse. Guilt. Reasons. Criminal history. Mitigating or aggravating circumstances.
Ability for the defendant to be rehabilitated considering cost-benefit analysis and availability of community resources.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court Case State v. Gallion outlined the law specifically on this issue by reciting in its decision the minimum considerations a judge must state on the record when sentencing a defendant. The above are included in the minimum, but I have indicated more than the minimum because I feel all of the factors I have identified should be the minimum.
The right of the citizens of this county to be safe from crime is the highest priority.
A judge is bound to consider three factors when sentencing a criminal defendant: First, the seriousness of the crime. Second, protection of the public. Third, the rehabilitative needs of the defendant.
These three factors work in concert. A serious crime must have a serious sentence. At the same time, the rehabilitative needs of the defendant need to be considered. At some point in the future, it is likely that the defendant will be released and the sentence needs minimize the possibility that the defendant will re-offend.
Some criminals cannot be rehabilitated. In those instances, the judge must protect the public by removing the defendant from society.
It is also important to send the message that crime in this county will be taken seriously and repeat offenses will not be tolerated. There is value in setting an example for others. I will not allow convicted criminals to continue to damage the community.
I am the new Branch II Judge in Waupaca County, appointed by Governor Walker on Jan. 15. Consequently, I need to be very careful to not appear to be pre-judging any case. While there is an election to retain the seat long term, I simply need to be more careful than the other candidates on this issue.
Wisconsin has a series of statutory factors that are to be applied by the court to the specific offense, and offender, considering the impact upon the victim in every instance.
Those legal factors will be considered by me, consistent with the case presented. Rest assured however, the law will be followed and the voice of the community will be heard.
Who are your judicial role models? Why?
Almost every judge I have ever gone before has influenced me in some manner.
Over the years I have taken mental notes considering, if I ever was elected judge, would I want to adopt, modify or disregard their techniques of administering justice. As a result, some local judges have served as a good role model, but others are role models of exactly the type of judge I do not want to be.
John Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor. As a historian, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was really the first justice to interpret the Constitution. Marshall did so authoritatively, firmly, justly and with extreme wisdom and precision that has had a profound impact on shaping the legal system as it exists today.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor also had a huge impact on me. She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan when I was attending New London High School. Although she was the first woman to ever be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, I admired her because she didn’t exploit her position as the “first woman” to serve an agenda. Instead Justice O’Conner just did the job like any Justice before her was appointed to do. She had the qualifications, actions, character and experience that landed her the appointment. She served our nation superbly with quiet dignity, integrity, intelligence and precision.
Like Justice O’Connor, I want to be the first woman to ever be elected to be a Waupaca County Circuit Court Judge. Like Justice O’Connor, the only agenda I plan to serve is the agenda that my community elects me to serve and I will do so effectively with the same quiet dignity, integrity, intelligence and precision.
I have had the opportunity to practice before over 35 different judges in my career. I have learned a great deal about what works well and what does not.
A good judge thoroughly reviews the facts of the case, and researches all of the applicable law. A good judge treats those before him with respect and patience. A good judge manages his calendar efficiently. A good judge never forgets that people stand in the courtroom out of respect for the judicial office not the person.
In terms of judicial philosophy, I respect judges who are conservative. It is not the role of the judge to tell the executive or the legislature what to do. Judges should not make rulings which expand or contract the constitution. That power is reserved to the people through the amendment process.
Judges have a great deal of authority but they should also remember their place. Judges preside over trials, settle disputes and sentence criminal offenders. They do not make the law or wade into politics.
I could rattle off a list of inquisitive, decisive and fair judges who ran their courtrooms with kindness, decorum and patience. Universally, the best judges are those who insure that everyone feels that he or she was heard and respected.
In two decades of trying cases from custody battles to fence line fights, in counties throughout Wisconsin, I have been in front of innumerable judges who meet those tests. Certainly, Waupaca County has been blessed with exemplary judges during my time here, and I would be honored to continue that tradition.
I now take the bench in Branch II, with those role models in mind.
We have wonderful judicial role models in Waupaca County. Judge Hoffmann, Judge Kirk and Judge Huber are all fair and compassionate jurists.
I have spent my legal career practicing in front of these three judges and have learned so much from each of them. They listen carefully to the parties before them, and make intelligent and reasoned decisions.
These three judges have always been committed to the citizens of Waupaca County. They care about justice and keeping the community safe.
I have learned many things from these three judges. They have taught me what it takes to be an effective judge and how the courts in Waupaca County work most efficiently. I can use these lessons if elected.
Role models are important to have in every occupation, especially for our youth. I believe it’s important for young people to realize that each of us should be evaluated on our talents and determination, rather than on our gender, color, class or creed.
Waupaca County has never had a female judge. It would be an honor to be elected Waupaca County’s first female judge, and would show our youth that this occupation is a viable option for both males and females in our community.
What do you perceive as the greatest obstacles to justice, if any?
The greatest obstacle in any court is finding the truth. Truth is often in the eye of the beholder, meaning that everyone has their own biases and agendas. Whether in a divorce, a criminal case or in a property dispute, a judge needs to be able to digest many different viewpoints to determine the facts.
Determining the credibility of witnesses is the most difficult task a judge faces and if you are a bad judge of character, the mistakes you make will be costly. People should not walk out of the courtroom feeling that they lost because the other party deceived the court.
The second greatest obstacle is bureaucracy. Too often victims of crime sit by for months or years as cases lumber through the system. Victims need closure and restitution for their losses. If you are the victim of a crime you should not have to take a back seat to a bureaucracy that doesn’t care.
The financial resources of parties and the increasing need for decisions to be made outside of families are the greatest challenges facing the judicial system.
It is an unfortunate reality that families are being more frequently broken apart, sometimes for good reason. Children are losing guidance at home, and often act out when used as pawns in family disputes. The parents are stretched, financially and emotionally beyond their capacity. Often, parents then make poor choices in subsequent spouses and families and the cycle continues. While any family will have its challenges, the more difficulties at home, the more likely the legal system will have to become involved.
Approximately 80 percent of divorces in Milwaukee County do not have attorneys involved. Waupaca County is approaching 50 percent of unrepresented divorces. While a lawyer-free event has a certain ring to it, what it means in reality is that many of those people are entering into life controlling agreements that they may not understand. Access to competent legal guidance is imperative in making decisions that affect one’s children and long term financial situation.
The combination of a greater necessity for judges to make decisions for families and less informed participants presents real obstacles to everyone involved. The court needs to process matters efficiently yet attempt to protect the rights of litigants. The court cannot, however, advocate for one party over another.
Growing financial tensions are presented in nearly every sort of court matter and will present real and difficult choices for years to come.
I feel that the one of the greatest obstacles to justice today is the inequity of resources available to litigants. Particularly in civil and family law cases, many litigants are not represented by attorneys.
Obviously, if one litigant has an attorney and the other does not, the unrepresented litigant may be at a disadvantage. However, even when both litigants lack attorneys, the playing field may not be fair since the parties may be unable to adequately present their cases to allow the court to make an informed decision.
The problem also may exist in criminal cases. Some individuals who can’t afford an attorney are entitled to counsel at public expense. However, many working people who can’t afford an attorney don’t qualify for public defenders. On the other hand, wealthy defendants may be able to hire expert witnesses that the state cannot, putting the state at a disadvantage.
While the inequity of resources is an issue, I feel that Waupaca County does a good job of insuring that people have an opportunity for justice. Many lawyers in our community are willing to work at reduced rates to help individuals and accommodate unrepresented people. I also feel that our judges work to see that people who want lawyers are given the time to seek counsel and will appoint counsel when appropriate at county expense.
The obstacles are many. A judge needs to be a good listener, evaluator, analyzer and communicator to be able to administer justice effectively. A judge needs to demonstrate strong character, integrity, honesty, fairness with utilizing their intelligence coupled with life experience and common sense.
The biggest obstacle, no matter what type of case is getting your case “heard,” which means getting the case to the judge for them to be able to administer justice.
The obstacles are different, many and difficult. There exists what I call the funnel of justice. Each stage there is a decision maker who determines if and how a case moves forward. The decisions and routes are sometimes financially driven, event driven, intelligence driven or power/control driven.
Our system is full of pro-se (unrepresented) persons because financially they cannot afford an attorney, which is an obstacle based on money. Our system can be event driven: for example, a woman is murdered by her husband. The event of the murder is what starts the process to justice. Intelligence drives the case because law enforcement will use their specialized education, intelligence, knowledge, experience and common sense to investigate and obtain the evidence of the case. The district attorney utilizes the power/control given to them by the public to make a decision that is in the public interest on how to proceed with the case given the assessment of the case.
Again, these are rather simplistic examples of a complicated and complex system. I have experience in so many areas of law and have experienced the many obstacles. If elected judge, I know and understand the many complex obstacles that must be overcome in just getting the case to me. I will be fair and honest and use my skills to administer justice effective and efficiently once a case comes before me.