Dane County Circuit Court Branch 1 Judge candidate
1. What is your background, both inside and outside the courthouse? What led you to run for circuit court judge?
Why I’m running: I have a deep commitment to public service and I thrive on tough challenges. I have exceptionally broad experience as a lawyer and I have appeared as an advocate in some of the most far-reaching cases heard by the Dane County Circuit Court in recent years. I want to put the knowledge and skills I’ve acquired over the past two decades to service as a judge. My mission is to serve our community and improve the justice system in Dane County.
Dane County has been my home for over twenty years. My husband and I have two children, now 13 and 16, who attend Madison public schools. My children and their young friends are my inspiration to pursue a judgeship. I want to work for a better future for them. I am troubled by the deep racial and economic disparities in our neighborhoods, schools, and justice system. I want to do justice in the courtroom every day and to work for innovations and reforms to ensure equal justice for all.
My personal and professional history: I grew up in Chippewa Falls, one of four kids in a family of modest means. I put myself through college at Lawrence University with financial aid and student loans. I went on to graduate school in English literature at Indiana University, working as a TA for three semesters. I gradually realized I wasn’t cut out for an academic career and decided to pursue a law degree, believing it would open doors to a career in public service. After working for a couple of years, I began law school at the University of Iowa College of Law in 1991. I graduated with high distinction in 1994.
I began my legal career at the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in Des Moines. I gained great experience there, arguing a dozen cases in the Iowa Supreme Court, but I wanted to return to my home state of Wisconsin. In 1997, I accepted a job as an assistant attorney general at the Wisconsin Department of Justice and my husband and I moved to Madison. I handled hundreds of felony criminal cases in the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and prosecuted health care fraud and patient abuse in circuit courts around the state. It was a thrill each time I introduced myself in court as counsel for the people of the State of Wisconsin. I was also privileged to be a member of the state attorney union.
While handling criminal cases, I often met and talked with crime victims, including victims of sexual assault and other serious crimes. I gained a sensitivity to the needs and rights of crime victims, for whom the criminal justice system often feels unwelcoming if not hostile. These experiences will influence how I treat people in the courtroom as a judge.
In late 2000, then six months pregnant, I was promoted to Director of Criminal Appeals at DOJ. I oversaw a statewide caseload of thousands of cases, advised and trained district attorneys in criminal law, advised the Attorney General on legal developments, and managed a large staff. I became extremely well-versed in criminal law and procedure, a key qualification in this election for judge of Branch 1, currently a designated criminal court which is assigned only criminal cases.
After Gov. Jim Doyle was elected in 2003, I served in several roles in his administration. First, as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Employment Relations, I helped oversee collective bargaining with the state employee unions and the administration of the civil service system. I was and am convinced that collective bargaining, labor-management cooperation, due process procedures, and merit-based hiring benefit both employees and employers.
In 2006, I moved next to the Department of Corrections, serving as chief of staff to the department head. While visiting prisons across the state, I was struck by the disproportionate representation of Black men and women in the prison population and the high level of treatment needs. I worked on policy reforms to reduce racial disparities, expand treatment resources in the community, and improve reentry into the community. My first-hand observations of the mass incarceration of Black men and women and knowledge of the limited resources of the corrections system will influence my decision-making as a judge.
In 2008, I accepted a position as administrator of the division of enforcement and science at the DNR, overseeing the agency’s enforcement of environmental laws and its research bureau. This position was rewarding and interesting, but short-lived. In 2009, the Governor asked me to serve as his chief legal counsel. I had a wide range of responsibilities as the Governor’s chief legal counsel, including ensuring that the domestic partnership law withstood a legal challenge from opponents of same-sex marriage. It was a privilege to work in the Wisconsin Capitol each day.
One of my most meaningful tasks in the Governor’s Office was serving as chair of the Governor’s Pardon Advisory Board. We heard from hundreds of Wisconsin citizens who sought the Governor’s pardon for crimes they committed decades earlier. This experience brought home to me the lifelong burden of a criminal record, a perspective I will bring to the criminal court. I strongly support the use of diversion programs (such as drug court) that give people the opportunity to avoid a criminal conviction.
I left state government when Governor Doyle’s term ended in early 2011, but I wanted to continue to use my legal skills to work in the public interest. I joined Pines Bach, a firm with a strong progressive reputation.
The fight against Act 10. Almost immediately after I joined Pines Bach, Act 10 was introduced in the legislature. I became very involved in the legal fight against Act 10, devoting hundreds of hours to various legal strategies to push back on this drastic, ill-considered, and unconstitutional legislation. My work included the following (in chronological order):
- After the bill that became Act 10 was introduced, fourteen Democratic senators left the state to deprive the state senate of a quorum. Senate Republican leaders threatened to have them arrested. My partner Lester Pines and I drafted and released a public memo arguing that the Senators were constitutionally protected from arrest. The memo went viral and the Republican leadership backed down. None of the senators were arrested.
- During the Act 10 protests at the state capitol, the Wisconsin State Journal sought to obtain the sick leave notes submitted by teachers who missed work. I filed a legal action in the Dane County Circuit Court to block release of the records. I subsequently negotiated a resolution with the newspaper and the school district that allowed teachers’ names and other personal information to be redacted from the notes, protecting teachers’ privacy and shielding them from personal attacks.
- The night the bill was rushed through the Legislature, I drafted a citizen’s complaint for Rep. Peter Barca, alleging violations of the open meeting law. The next day, I
hand-delivered the signed complaint to the district attorney, who immediately charged the legislative leaders with violating the open meetings law. Representing Sen. Mark Miller, I argued in the Dane County Circuit Court that Republican leadership had violated public notice requirements. Dane County Judge Sumi halted the publication of Act 10 due to open meeting violations. Although the ruling was overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the delay gave many public employee unions time to finalize contracts and contract extensions.
Representing MTI, my partners and I filed a lawsuit in the Dane County Circuit Court against Governor Walker, arguing that Act 10 was unconstitutional. I took the lead in developing and drafting the legal arguments in the case. Judge Juan Colás issued a ruling that Act 10 was unconstitutional. Although the Wisconsin Supreme Court eventually reinstated the law in 2014, the long legal fight protected MTI and its members from Act 10 for over three years.
In my seven years at Pines Bach, I’ve fought to protect citizens from abuses of power and defend their constitutional rights in numerous court cases, including:
- MTI v. James Scott. I sued the chair of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission for access to public records created in union recertification elections. I won in the circuit court and argued the case in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in December 2017.
- Coyne v. Walker. Representing public school teachers and parents, I won a ruling in the Dane County Circuit Court blocking the Walker administration from interfering with the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s constitutional authority to set policy for public schools. I argued and won the case in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2016.
- League of Women Voters v. Walker. I argued and won a constitutional challenge to the state’s restrictive voter ID law in Dane County Circuit Court in 2012. The decision was ultimately overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a split decision.
- Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin v. Van Hollen. With a team of lawyers from my firm, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU, I worked to protect women’s reproductive rights in federal court. I also won a ruling for Planned Parenthood in a separate case in the Dane County Circuit Court, protecting health care providers from an ambiguous law threatening felony penalties for providing medication abortions.
- Gill v. Whitford. I co-authored an amicus brief on behalf of the League of Conservation Voters in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case challenging Wisconsin’s gerrymandered legislative districts.
In addition to these broadly impactful cases, I’ve assisted many employees with sexual harassment, discrimination, wage theft, and other unfair treatment in the workplace. I also help renewable energy developers with permits and government approvals, represent the Citizens Utility Board before the Public Service Commission, and represent many small businesses and families in property and contract disputes.
Community involvement: While maintaining a busy law practice and family life, I’ve also made it a priority to give back to my community and profession as a volunteer. I serve on the Board of Directors for the nonprofit Renew Wisconsin. I am a commissioner on the Dane County Equal Opportunity Commission. I serve as executive vice president of the Madison Chapter of the American Constitution Society (often referred to as a progressive counterpart to the Federalist Society) and as a mentor for new attorneys through the Dane County Bar Association. I have contributed substantial pro bono legal work to nonprofits in areas in which I have expertise (such as election monitoring, voting rights litigation, and public record requests and litigation). I have participated several times as a volunteer judge for high school mock trial competitions. I’ve been an active participant in my two children’s education, including serving as president of our public school PTO and have volunteered extensively in youth sports and other activities. I will benefit as a judge from my engagement in and ties with the community.
2.Low-income people are disproportionately punished by our criminal justice system. What changes are needed for a more equitable criminal justice system?
Low income and indigent people face systemic disadvantages at every stage in the criminal justice system. They may experience a greater number of contacts with law enforcement, who focus patrol efforts in low-income communities (particularly communities of color); if arrested, they may be unable to post bail and spend more time in custody awaiting trial; they may have difficulty obtaining effective legal representation; they may lack paid time off and experience reduced wages – or even job loss – in order to make court appointments; and they may have difficulty paying fines, fees, and court costs if convicted. A jail or prison sentence that takes a wage earner out of the workforce can have a devastating impact on children and other family members.
Many of these issues could be remedied or mitigated through legislation. For example, the threshold for qualifying for a public defender is very low. A person employed in a low-wage job may not qualify for a publicly funded attorney, yet be unable to pay a private defense attorney. Additionally, Wisconsin has the lowest rate in the country for paying private attorneys to represent indigent defendants, necessary to handle cases when the public defender has a conflict or reaches maximum caseloads. The rate has not been increased since 1978 and, at $40 per hour, it is too low to cover overhead for most defense attorneys. As a result, it is difficult for indigent and low-income defendants to find effective counsel. Unfortunately, both the state legislature and Wisconsin Supreme Court have rebuffed proposals to increase the appointed counsel rate. Judges have spoken out out about this issue publicly and should continue to do so. As a judge, I would add my voice.
Aside from policy changes, judges should do their best to ensure that a defendant is not unfairly penalized in the criminal justice system due to lack of financial resources. Dane County has implemented bail reforms (BMP) that reduce reliance on a defendant’s financial status in determining whether he or she is held in custody pending trial. Pretrial detention should be the exception, not the rule. Judges should, when possible, take into account an employed defendant’s work schedule in setting court dates. More broadly, the Dane County court system should reform court scheduling practices that require long waits by defendants for brief court appearances, which increase work absences, loss of wages, and create a risk of job loss. These reforms require collaboration across criminal justice system participants. I would welcome the opportunity to participate on a working group to solve such problems.
Cases involving criminal defendants who appear in court without a lawyer pose particular challenges. Judges need to ensure that a defendant appearing pro se has voluntarily waived the right to counsel; if not, it may be necessary for the judge to appoint counsel at county expense. If a defendant waives the right to counsel, the judge should take care to thoroughly explain courtroom procedures to the defendant to ensure that he or she gets a fair hearing.
Finally, as a judge, I would certainly consider a criminal defendant’s financial resources in determining sentences and ordering costs. Unfortunately, the state legislature has become overly reliant on fees and surcharges as a means of funding the court system and other criminal justice costs (such as DNA analysis, which convicted defendants fund through a $250
per-felony surcharge). The burden of fees, court costs, and surcharges can set many low-income defendants on a path to failure. Judges have the authority to waive some but not all statutory court fees, court costs, and surcharges, and I would not hesitate to do so in appropriate cases.
3. Dane County’s criminal justice system faces some of the worst racial disparities in the country. What will you do to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system?
This issue must be attacked on multiple fronts by all participants in the criminal justice system. One judge will not solve the problem, but we need all judges to be committed and engaged on solving it. Awareness of the problem is a good start, but not a solution. Reducing racial disparities in Dane County’s criminal justice system would be my highest priority as a judge.
In my experience, most judges are well-intentioned and are not consciously biased in their decision making. This means judges need to confront implicit biases, which we all have. I support two key strategies for addressing the racial disparities in the justice system that are attributable to judicial decision-making.
First, judges should receive statewide data tracking sentencing outcomes, judge by judge, that bring disparities to light. Greater transparency is essential. I would push for access to and publication of such data to hold judges accountable for their decisions. As a judge, I would track my own decisions and would consult available sentencing data from other Dane County
and Wisconsin courts to ensure that my decisions did not reflect unconscious racial bias.
Second, I strongly support training for judges on implicit bias and cultural competency. I personally would participate in formal training on implicit bias and work independently to recognize and confront my unconscious biases.
Judges are also in a position to identify and confront racially biased decision-making by other participants in the criminal justice system. For example, judges are in a position to monitor plea bargaining and charging decisions and to actively question such decisions if they appear to disparately impact people of color.
In addition, Wisconsin is simply incarcerating too many people for too long.Sentence length is part of the problem. Judges have wide discretion in determining whether to impose a jail or prison sentence and the length of the sentence. I would utilize alternatives to incarceration at sentencing in cases in which I believed the individual could be held accountable, and victims
and the public protected, without incarceration. Likewise, I would carefully consider and determine sentence length in light of what was necessary to protect the public and most effective in reducing recidivism. Again, data on sentencing outcomes is needed to assist judges in structuring sentences based on evidence of what is actually effective.
4. What relationship should the criminal justice system have with issues of disabilities and mental health?
This is an issue I feel very strongly about. The criminal justice system’s current relationship with mental health issues is outdated and ineffective, at great personal and societal costs. Significant reforms are needed. Unfortunately, our prison system are often used as mental health institutions of last resort. Based on my experience in corrections, our prisons are not
well equipped to serve as mental health treatment facilities. The prevalence of mental illness among the prison population is estimated to be as high as 70%, and the mental health and substance abuse treatment needs of the prison population outstrip the available resources, which are rationed.
Mental health needs should be taken into account at each step in the criminal justice system, from initial contacts with law enforcement through the reentry of prisoners into the community after they have served time. Law enforcement personnel should be trained to recognize and deal appropriately with mentally ill people through deescalation and other techniques. Individuals with mental illness who are arrested and charged with crimes should have access to appropriate treatment. Diversion programs, such as Dane County’s drug court, can give people suffering from mental illness, including addiction, access treatment and allow them to avoid criminal convictions that will limit their opportunities for the rest of their lives. Such programs should be expanded (such as by creating a mental health court) to reach all offenders who have the potential to benefit from treatment while being held accountable for their behavior. Likewise, it is critical that offenders who do not qualify for diversion program to have access to mental health treatment if incarcerated (or in the community, if placed on probation). Jails and prisons should stop the use of solitary confinement, which is deeply inhumane and exacerbates mental illness. When prisoners reenter the community, they should be connected with mental health treatment resources, including prescription medications, to avoid the all-too-common “revolving door” back to prison.
Judges do not set budgets or determine the resources available for the treatment of the mentally ill. What they can do – and what I intend to do as a judge – is, first, to fully utilize available resources to connect defendants with mental health assessments and treatment services. Second, it is critically important for judges to share their observations from their courtrooms with policy makers, community organizations, and advocacy groups. Judges often stay silent on issues of public importance based on the misperception that speaking out on public issues is too political and not befitting a judge. I strongly disagree. Judges must use their voices and share their unique perspective on the justice system with other stakeholders. Third, I would strongly support the expansion of mental health treatment resources within the justice system. Dane County does not currently have a Mental Health Court or a Homeless Court, diversion programs that are in use in Wisconsin and other states. These programs require collaboration across multiple participants in the criminal justice system and county government. As a judge, I would support and participate in collaborative efforts to develop a Mental Health Court or similar program.
With respect to the broader question about disability, judges should take physical and/or cognitive disabilities of criminal defendants and crime victims into account in the courtroom. I have experience prosecuting criminal cases involving both criminal defendants and victims with disabilities. I also have personal experience in this area; my younger sister has lifelong physical and cognitive disabilities. People with disabilities, both physical and intellectual/cognitive, are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse and financial crimes. The formalities of court procedures may make it difficult or impossible for them to be effective witnesses. As is the case with children, judges should make appropriate accommodations to ensure that crime victims with disabilities are not revictimized by the court proceedings and have the ability to be heard, while still upholding the defendant’s constitutional rights.
Likewise, judges can and should take a defendant’s physical and cognitive disabilities into account in determining an appropriate sentence. Cognitive and intellectual disabilities may be mitigating factors and/or may point to the need for counseling, treatment, or supervision to assist the person in avoiding future criminal behavior. Judges have broad discretion to consider such factors. As a judge, I will do so.
5. How can the criminal justice system be more equitable in its treatment of transgender people?
Transgender people are frequently targets of hate crimes, abuse, and violence and may encounter the criminal justice system as crime victims. Likewise, transgender people are especially vulnerable to inequitable, discriminatory, or abusive treatment as defendants.
Judges must take care to ensure that transgender people are treated with respect, compassion, and dignity in the courtroom, whether they appear as defendants, victims, witnesses, or in some other capacity. Judges and court staff must ensure that transgender and nonbinary persons are not misgendered in court papers and during court appearances (such as by the use of incorrect pronouns or deadnames). If a transgender person’s gender history or identity are not relevant to the proceedings, the court should take steps to maintain the confidentiality of those facts and not put them in the court record. These are simple, practical steps to help ensure that transgender people receive equal treatment under the law.
Likewise, other participants in the criminal justice system, including police and correctional agencies, should have explicit policies and appropriate training to ensure the safety of transgender people are not violated, particularly when in custody. Transgender people are at a high risk of harassment, assault, and violence while incarcerated. Jailing of transgender
people in solitary confinement is not an appropriate solution; it is punitive, discriminatory, and places transgender people at risk of mental illness. Transgender people must have access to appropriate health care (including hormonal therapy and gender reassignment surgery) and mental health treatment while incarcerated. Correctional and law enforcement agencies should provide training to educate personnel on gender diversity and ensure that transgender people are treated with dignity and respect.
6. How would you characterize your relationship with organized labor over the course of your career? What is your position on Act 10?
I have a long and productive relationship with organized labor over the course of my legal career. First, at the beginning of my career, I was a member of attorney’s union as an assistant attorney general. When I was hired at the Wisconsin DOJ, as one of several new attorneys, I requested and helped organize a meeting with union leadership to allow new attorneys to understand and participate in the union more effectively. As a union member, I benefited from the representation and advocacy of my union.
Later in my career in state government, I served as a manager of represented employees. The existence of collective bargaining agreements provided structure, certainty, clear rights and obligations for both employees and management. My role as the deputy secretary at the Department of Employee Relations confirmed what I already knew: both employees and the employer are well served when employees have an effective representative speaking on their collective behalf.
Finally, for the past seven years, it’s been my privilege to represent Madison Teachers, Inc. (the union representing teachers and other employees of the Madison Metropolitan School District) in numerous matters. As described above, I fought against Act 10 for many years as a lawyer for MTI, in both the Dane County Circuit Court and the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I continue to strongly believe that Act 10 is constitutionally defective and impairs employees’ constitutional rights to associate and engage in collective action.
In addition to my work on Act 10, I have appeared in court on behalf of MTI in a number of far-reaching and influential cases, as described above. I have also advocated for progressive, pro-democratic causes, such as voting rights and women’s right to reproductive freedom, that are closely aligned with the values of organized labor.
7. Who is on your campaign team and what is your strategy to be successful? Why have you sought the TAA endorsement?
My campaign team consists of my campaign manager and a team of highly experienced advisors who are assisting with fundraising, social media, and messaging. Andy Gussert, a seasoned campaign manager who has managed judicial races, launched my campaign and created the overall campaign plan that we are carrying out. My campaign manager, Eric Lagesse, is implementing the plan with ongoing input from our team of advisors. Our strategy includes a creative, intensive social media presence along with more traditional messaging, which will include targeted mailings and video advertising (online and television). We are also utilizing traditional grassroots/retail campaigning through yard signs, door-to-door lit drops, word of mouth, and attendance at community events. We are engaging in vigorous fundraising to ensure that our campaign has the resources to get our message out. We have sought and obtained key endorsements from prominent Dane County leaders, including County Executive Joe Parisi, Sheriff Dave Mahoney, Alder Mo Cheeks, and over twenty current and former Dane County Circuit Court judges.
I have sought the TAA endorsement because (1) TAA’s values and mission are closely aligned with my own, (2) TAA’s endorsement will help bring my background and message to its members and other young professional/UW-affiliated voters, which are an important constituency for me, and (3) TAA’s endorsement will help us attract additional volunteers among its members.