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?
I am running for Circuit Court Judge because I care deeply about fairness and equal justice in our courts. My commitment is to put my skills, experience, and values to work every day, in order to be an impartial and thoughtful Circuit Court Judge, help eliminate racial disparity, and improve access to the courts.
I have both judicial and legal experience. For my entire career – as a public interest attorney representing Unions and working people and handling civil rights and employment cases; and as a municipal court judge – I have focused on making sure everyone gets a fair shake. My unique combination of legal and judicial experience will help me hit the ground running as a Circuit Court Judge.
My appreciation of working families, the importance of collective strength, and the challenges people face started young.
I grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin. My maternal grandparents immigrated from Slovenia and my mother was a first-generation American. Both my parents grew up during the great depression. Neither of them finished high school. But they appreciated the importance of education. Three of my sisters became public school teachers. My parents taught all eight of their children the values of hard work, perseverance, and giving back to our communities.
That’s part of what drew me to representing working people, individuals who have been discriminated against, and those who have been treated unfairly in the workplace. I understand the situations which bring people into court.
I began doing labor and employment law in the late 1970s. During my 38-year career, it has been my honor to be involved in a great number of important cases. It is also true that every case is the most important case to the people involved. Recently, I won a unanimous decision in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a case called Operton v. LIRC. I first met Lela Operton at the Unemployment Compensation Law Clinic at which I have volunteered for over 25 years. This was a case to restore unemployment benefits to Ms. Operton who had been fired by Walgreens and then denied unemployment benefits. The unanimous Supreme Court decision, which restored those benefits, will positively affect many workers around the State, who will no longer be unfairly denied the benefits to which they are entitled.
It has also been my honor to be elected three times as a Municipal Court Judge for Shorewood Hills. I have overseen and decided more than 3,000 cases. I have issued written decisions, effectively and fairly managed a courtroom, presided over trials, and ruled on matters of law. I am the only candidate for judge who is a judge, and that experience is critically important: the issues we face in our courts require collaborative, active, and knowledgeable Judges, who are willing and able to tackle tough issues, understand individual circumstances, and make our justice system more just. That is the kind of Judge I am, the kind of attorney I have been, and the kind of Circuit Court Judge I will be.
I am also a strong proponent of initiatives that help reduce racial disparity in our criminal justice system. Municipal Courts are on the front lines of our justice system. We see the root causes of crime, often at the beginning of a potentially negative trajectory. As a Municipal Court Judge, when appropriate, I offer defendants the opportunity to avoid a record, by postponing sentencing to allow them to receive drug and alcohol assessment and treatment, or by offering community service as an alternative to a conviction and a record.
As a Dane County judge, I will support and participate in countywide initiatives to reduce racial disparity. Lots of good work is underway and can be expanded: restorative justice courts, treatment and specialty courts such as Veterans Court, efforts to combat implicit bias, and a pilot program testing better ways to determine the amount of bail. I will advocate to add a Mental Health Treatment Court in Dane County.
I am honored to have earned the endorsement of 40 Judges including Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg and Judge Paul Higginbotham as well as more than 660 other endorsers including attorneys, elected officials and community leaders: Russ Feingold, former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, former Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton, and Former Governors Tony Earl and Martin Schreiber among them. Labor organization are also endorsing my candidacy including the South Central Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, Teamsters Local 695, United Steel Workers District 2, IBEW Local 159, IBEW Local 965, IBEW Local 2304, SMART Local 565, SMARTTransportation, and Our Wisconsin Revolution-Dane County . A complete list can be found at www.marilyntownsendforjudge.com
2.Low-income people are disproportionately punished by our criminal justice system. What changes are needed for a more equitable criminal justice system?
There are five areas in which changes and new approaches would help reduce the disproportionate burden on people with low incomes who are in the criminal justice system:
Setting Bail: We need to develop new approaches to setting bail. Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “usually only one factor determines whether a defendant stays in jail before he comes to trial. That factor is not guilt or innocence. It is not the nature of the crime. It is not the character of the defendant. That factor is simply, money. How much money does the defendant have?”
That was in 1965 and although there have been changes and reforms since then, too many people are confined, pre-trial, because they cannot afford to pay bail.
National attention is being paid to this issue, as is evidenced in this NBC news report. Here in Dane County, I support the current pilot program testing better ways to determine the amount of bail.
Fines. As a Municipal Court Judge, I carefully consider the fines I impose. Clearly, fines – any one fine or sometimes a number of fines that are imposed — have a disproportionate effect on people with low incomes who may not be able to pay them, which can lead to a cascading set of issues and challenges.
Using the resources in the criminal justice system to connect people to needed services: Judges can use the tools available to them to help individuals in the system get the services they need. Currently, as a Municipal Court Judge, where appropriate, I offer defendants the opportunity to avoid a record, by postponing sentencing to allow them to receive drug and alcohol assessment and treatment, or by offering community service as an alternative to a conviction and a record. Many people are in the criminal justice system precisely because they have not had access to mental health or alcohol or drug treatment. We have the opportunity, with treatment and diversion courts, to have people leave the system in a healthier place than when they entered it.
Scheduling: Judges should be sensitive to the child care, transportation, and job-related issues that are especially difficult for people with low incomes. As a Municipal Court Judge, where appropriate, I make sure to schedule trials and grant extensions so that defendants do not miss work, lose pay or lose their job in order to come to court.
Access to attorneys: High quality legal representation should be available to everyone. Without it, the resolution of cases (whether the case goes to trial, the severity of the crime to which a defendant pleads, etc.) are affected. Public defenders should be adequately paid and private-bar attorneys who are court appointed should be adequately compensated as well. Unlike in criminal cases where attorneys are appointed for those who cannot afford them, there is no such appointment process in civil cases such as housing, child custody, benefits, and employment. I support efforts by the State Bar, local bar associations, circuit courts, law schools, advocates and others to increase access to representation for people who cannot afford an attorney.
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?
As a Judge, I currently utilize the options available to me – community service, alcohol and other drug counseling – in order to give individuals the opportunity to avoid a conviction and a record.
As a Circuit Court Judge, I will continue to use the options available including diversion and treatment courts that reduce incarceration and recidivism. I will be an active participant in reviewing, adopting, evaluating, and enacting changes that will help reduce the disparity in the system.
I will also support new initiatives. Dane County is currently engaged in efforts to review and improve pre-trial practices (https://isthmus.com/news/news/data-driven-criminal-justice-program/) and improve its data gathering: what you don’t measure you cannot change. I will advocate to add a Mental Health Treatment Court in Dane County.
In this campaign, I am honored to have the endorsement of leaders in the charge to reduce racial disparities in Dane County including Dane County Supervisors Shelia Stubbs and Heidi Wegleitner.
Dr. Pam Oliver wrote: “Racial disparities in imprisonment arise from a large number of different forces that vary greatly between places and over time. Local decision-makers have tremendous influence over policies about policing, arrests, charging, plea bargaining, sentencing, and community supervision. Public discussions about one issue (e.g. drug charge disparities) can lead local actors to change their policies, but other unnoticed policy changes may keep disparities high, or they may drop them. Second, you need to keep monitoring data over time to see what is the same and what has changed.”
Since Dr. Oliver wrote those words in October 2016, she and other experts have worked tirelessly to hold elected officials, the court system, and other institutions accountable in regard to making progress on reducing racial disparities throughout the court system. They have done so by publicizing research, encouraging policymakers to review and revise policies, and by engaging the broader Dane County community in a review and discussion of why things are how they are and how they could be different.
I understand what may bring people before a court, their right to a strong defense, the importance of integrity in prosecution, and the role of the judge.
Judges must have integrity and also humility. Our work is fundamentally in service to large and important principles at a time in America when many question the ability of institutions to serve all the people of this great nation. As a judge, I aspire to achieve equal justice under law; just as importantly, I recognize that there is work to do and changes that must be made in order to make equal justice a reality, not simply a promise.
4. What relationship should the criminal justice system have with issues of disabilities and mental health?
In the Dane County jail, estimates are that 40 percent of the inmates have a diagnosable mental illness. Jails are not the place to be when you have a mental illness or a substance abuse issue. And, if we simply lock up people who are mentally ill, or addicted to alcohol or drugs, the chances are very high that once they are released, they will re-offend.
As a Circuit Court Judge, I will advocate to expand the treatment courts we now have in Dane county (drug and OWI) to include a Mental Health Treatment Court. Treatment courts have been proven effective: they hold people accountable, get individuals the treatment they need, reduce recidivism, and help turn lives around.
As a Judge, currently, I offer defendants the opportunity to avoid a record, by postponing sentencing to allow them to receive drug and alcohol assessment and treatment, or by offering community service as an alternative to a conviction.
As a Dane County Judge, I will continue to work with my colleagues, with elected officials, with the faith community, with substance abuse and mental health professionals, and advocates to make sure we continue to support and where possible expand diversion, specialty, and treatment courts.
5. How can the criminal justice system be more equitable in its treatment of transgender people?
The Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project issues a report in May 2016 entitled Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails Transgender People. That report contains a number of recommendations including “reduc(ing) the number of people held in confinement facilities—including adults in prisons and jails, youth in juvenile justice facilities, and undocumented immigrants in detention centers” and “ensur(ing) that prison and jail re-entry programs provide a holistic assessment of an individual’s needs.
In addition to those recommendations, which are applicable to court systems nationwide, the Dane County court system should ensure that restrooms and other facilities are comfortable and accessible to transgender people and ensure gender designations on forms and other gender designations in court proceedings are inclusive.
6. How would you characterize your relationship with organized labor over the course of your career? What is your position on Act 10?
The passage of Act 10 and the protests of 2011 galvanized many people to act on behalf of labor and working people. My commitment to labor and to labor issues started in the late 1970’s. Prior to attending law school, I worked as a community organizer for the United Farm Workers of America. During law school, I was a law clerk at the United Mine Works of America (UMWA) and the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE). After graduation, I began my legal career as a staff attorney at the UMWA. For the past 25 years, I’ve volunteered at the Unemployment Compensation Clinic at the Madison Labor Temple, offering my legal services for free to those who need them. Over the course of my career I’ve represented IBEW Local 159; the United Transportation Union; WEAC; SMART Local 565; OPEIU Local 39; United Papers Workers Local 20; SEIU District 1199W and SEIU Local 150. I have also worked for IBEW Local 2304 and successfully represented the staff union at MTI in an arbitration case.
Thus, for 38 years, as an attorney, I’ve been a part of the labor movement: working for Unions, representing them in court, representing working people, and fighting for fairness in the workplace. Act 10, both in terms of intent and ideology, was anathema to all that.
Apart from the personal and professional affront, I believe the Wisconsin Supreme Court wrongly decided that case. A basic tenet of judging is that you don’t go outside the record nor does a judge get to choose the question she rules on: you rule on the case before you.
As Justice Ann Walsh Bradley observed in her dissent to the Act 10 case, the majority “pivots to a different issue advanced by the state and then analyzes that issue…avoiding the actual argument advanced before this court.”
In other words, the Supreme Court majority choose to decide whether there is a constitutional right to bargain collectively instead of whether Act 10 infringes on the freedom of association rights of public employees to organize, which was the question before it.
7. Who is on your campaign team and what is your strategy to be successful? Why have you sought the TAA endorsement?
Many people encouraged me to run again for Dane County Judge. I have a strong desire to serve. And, as I thought about what I bring to the bench – judicial and legal experience, success in the Supreme Court, a history of commitment to equal justice and access to justice – those qualities are as relevant and necessary as ever our Circuit Court. I am running a strong, positive and county-wide campaign focused on my background, experience, and values. We will reach voters through mailings, canvasses, lit drops, and paid media.
I am the only candidate in this race voluntarily limiting the amount of campaign contributions. There is too much money in judicial races and the public must have confidence that justice is not for sale. That principled stance has received much support.
Melissa Mulliken is my campaign manager; my honorary committee includes Jair Alvarez, Attorney Jon Axelrod, Supervisor Carousel Bayrd, Ralph Cagle, David Clarenbach, Frances Huntley Cooper, John Imes, Alder Rebecca Kemble, Kathleen Garvey McNeil, Dave Newby, Supervisor Michele Ritt, Supervisor Bob Salov, Eric Schulenburg, Vicky Selkowe, Jeff Spitzer Resnick, Supervisor Shelia Stubbs, and Nia Enemuoh-Trammell. There are about 100 individuals who have volunteered.