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Out of 56 races for circuit judge, only 10 will be contested next week • Wisconsin Examiner

Wisconsin’s legal system has 261 circuit court branches, filled with the local judges who make the vast majority of legal decisions in the state. While the state’s Supreme Court elections have become increasingly known for their high cost, intense campaigning and national attention, circuit court judges are also elected. 

These judges, who serve six-year terms, decide hundreds of thousands of cases every year, presiding over trials on matters ranging from murder to property disputes. In recent years, Circuit Court judges have made decisions in issues that affect people across Wisconsin, including the interpretation of the state’s 1849 abortion law, the application of the state’s toxic spills law to PFAS and with which methods Wisconsinites are allowed to vote. 

But on the ballot next week, only 10 of the 56 circuit courts up for election this year have contested races. Of the 47 incumbent judges on the ballot, Wisconsin Watch reported, only four face a challenger. 

Columbia County

In Columbia County, incumbent Judge Troy Cross is facing Lodi attorney Roger Klopp. 

Cross has served one term on the bench in Columbia County, where he previously worked as an assistant district attorney. In an interview with the Lodi Enterprise, Cross said he believes he still has work to do for the county and for helping clear the backlog of cases in the system that has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic while also noting he doesn’t believe in doing “social work” from the bench. 

His opponent, Klopp, has been a private attorney in Columbia County since graduating from the University of Wisconsin law school in 1989. Klopp has said his experience as a defense attorney rather than as a prosecutor would help him if elected. 

“And that really is a huge thing. When you come into court, you’re hoping that you receive justice,” Klopp told the Lodi paper. “This is the whole idea that we have a judicial system–and you want the judicial system to give justice to people.”

He also told the Enterprise that many people in the county’s justice system have unmet mental health needs. 

The cost of the race has not yet exceeded $10,000. This year, Cross’ only financial support has been $4,601 of his own money he contributed to his campaign, campaign finance records show. Klopp has raised $5,261, largely through individual donations of less than $100. Klopp has also raised $70 worth of in-kind consulting services from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

All campaign finance records in this story are from the pre-election filing period that ended this week. More complete records will be available following the election. 

Door County

In Door County, family court Commissioner Jennifer Moeller is facing Sturgeon Bay attorney Brett Reetz to replace the retiring Judge Todd Ehlers, who held the seat for 24 years. 

Moeller has been the county family court commissioner for 12 years. She also previously served on the Sturgeon Bay common council and as president of the city’s police and fire commission. 

Both candidates have said their experience makes them more qualified for the role. Moeller points to her work as commissioner, saying it’s a job that includes many responsibilities that are similar to a judge’s role. Reetz says he has much more trial experience than Moeller. 

In a candidate questionnaire published by the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Moeller and Reetz both said incarceration remains a necessary part of the criminal justice system, but they varied on possible reforms. 

“Incarceration remains a valuable tool for the criminal justice system,” Moeller said. “Those working in criminal justice have known for decades that more options are needed. Various alternatives to incarceration have been attempted around the country and studied at length. I applaud Door County for working on bail reform and diversion programs in appropriate cases.” 

Reetz said he supports rehabilitative programs while attacking policy proposals such as ending the use of cash bail. 

“I am against all George Soros-backed policies, especially cashless bail,” Reetz said. “I am in favor of decriminalizing individuals rather than decriminalizing crimes. To effectively decriminalize individuals, criminal thinking patterns must be terminated. A balanced combination of rehabilitation and incarceration must be found for each defendant. Some defendants are in the business of crime and these must be punished severely. However, most defendants are criminals because of addiction, alcoholism, poverty and broken homes. Consequences for these sorts of defendants should include a predominance of rehabilitative services. Drug, veterans’ and mental health courts are effective tools being used in many jurisdictions.”

Campaign finance records show that Reetz has self-funded his campaign, contributing $13,000 of his own money to the effort. 

Moeller has raised about $10,000 through small dollar donations. She has received a $100 donation from former Democratic Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton. 

Kenosha County

In Kenosha County, incumbent Frank Gagliardi is facing Court Commissioner Heather Iverson. Gagliardi was appointed to the bench late last year by Gov. Tony Evers to replace the retiring Judge Bruce Schroeder. 

Gagliardi told the Kenosha News that he should be reelected because he’s the more experienced candidate. 

“I want to continue to serve and make a difference in our community,” he said. “Making sure that the people who come before me are “heard,” and have a fair opportunity during their day in court. I realized early in my career that one of the most paramount concerns for my clients was that the Judge heard their issues and treated them with respect, whether they won their case or not. I want to ensure that this happens in our court! I am the most experienced candidate (in terms of the areas of law that I have litigated and in operating a private practice) and will use my experience as an asset in handling cases from the bench.”

Iverson also touted her experience while saying she believes she can help make the circuit court equitable and accessible to members of the community.

“My extensive experience has equipped me with a comprehensive understanding of the complexities within our legal system and the unique needs of our community,” she said. “I am dedicated to upholding the principles of justice, fairness, and integrity. I believe that my proven track record of impartiality, efficiency, compassion, and protection of our community qualifies me to serve as the Branch 3 Circuit Court Judge. I am deeply invested in ensuring that our judicial system remains accessible and equitable for all residents, and I am committed to making decisions that reflect the values and priorities of our community.”

This race is more expensive than others around the state. So far this year, Iverson has raised more than $34,000, with much of that coming from a $15,000 personal loan to the campaign, records show.

Gagliardi has raised more than $23,000, including a $500 donation from state Department of Revenue Secretary Peter Barca, who formerly represented Kenosha in the Assembly. 

La Crosse County

Incumbent Judge Mark Huesmann is facing former Judge Candice Tlustosch in La Crosse County. 

Huesmann was appointed to the seat by Evers last summer following the retirement of Judge Todd Bjerke. A veteran and former court commissioner, Huesmann was involved in developing the county’s veterans court in 2010. 

Huesmann told the La Crosse Tribune that his temperament helps him in his role. 

“I think people will tell you I’m pretty even-keeled,” he said. “I’m committed to making the community a good place to live. I’m conscientious in my job, and I’d like to do it for another six years.

Tlustosch was appointed to a seat on the bench by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2015. She served for just five months after losing in a three-person primary race by just 25 votes. 

“I have 18 years of broad legal experience in the La Crosse area. Instead of specializing in only one area such as family or criminal law, I have essentially handled all areas of law. Our community needs a judge with experience in all cases that come before the bench, and I have that,” Tlustosch said. “Compassion and fairness to all parties is also necessary, so it is important for judges to act without bias.”

Huesmann has raised $12,000 this year, with most of that coming from personal loans to the campaign. He’s also received in-kind consulting services from the state Democratic Party. Tlustosch has raised about $10,000, with $5,000 of that coming from personal loans. 

Milwaukee County

Milwaukee County has 12 circuit court branches on the ballot this year, but only one race is contested. Democratic state Rep. Marisabel Cabrera is running against Brown Deer attorney Rochelle N. Johnson-Bent. 

Currently, branch 43 is assigned to children’s court. Cabrera, a three-term representative, served on both the family law and corrections committees this legislative session. Johnson-Bent has previously worked for Milwaukee Public Schools and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee. 

Cabrera has made $60,000 in personal loans to her campaign and raised an additional $6,200 through individual contributions, giving her a massive financial advantage over Johnson-Bent, who has raised about $8,500. Almost all of Cabrera’s additional funds have been spent on campaign mailers, records show

Oneida County 

Oneida County Assistant District Attorney Mary Sowinski is running against the county’s Corporation Counsel Michael Fugle for an open seat on the Oneida County bench. 

A fifth-generation resident of the county, Sowinski has worked in the District Attorney’s office for eight years. She told local radio station WXPR that she believes she can independently apply the law. 

“Judges, I think, in order for our system to work, need to be absolutely independent,” Sowinski said. “They’re willing to stand up and say what their decision on the law is when it comes time for that to happen, and they know it’s going to be controversial.”

Fugle has been the county’s corporation counsel for the past 15 years. He also ran for county district attorney in 2012 and a different circuit court seat last year. He told WXPR the most important quality a judge can have is to recognize how large an effect their decision will have on the person in their courtroom. 

“I think an important thing for a judge to recognize is where the people are who are coming before you and being able to make a decision, make the right decision, but also be able to recognize the impact your decision is going to have on the people appearing before you,” he said.

Sowinski has raised about $20,000, with about half of that coming from personal contributions to her campaign. Fugle has raised about $3,500, including a $1,000 transfer from the campaign committee of state Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander). 

Racine County 

Judge Toni Young was appointed by Evers to the Racine County bench late last year. She is the first Black woman to serve as a judge in the county. Lynott is an assistant district attorney in the county. 

Young previously worked for the state Public Defender’s office, opened a bankruptcy law firm and served as a guardian ad litem in Racine County. She told the Racine Journal Times that she’s worked to balance people’s constitutional rights with public safety in her few months on the bench. 

“I think that I’m fair on crime, if there is such a thing,” Young said. “We have a lot of things going on in our community and I think sometimes you have to hit the gavel pretty hard in order to decrease some of the recidivism and repeat offenses.”

Lynott told the paper the community needs a judge who has “common sense.” 

“I think it’s important that we have some common sense on the bench and a judiciary that takes protecting the public very seriously, which I do,” she said. 

Lynott has helped her campaign with a $25,000 personal loan, which in addition to $15,000 in other fundraising, has given her a big financial advantage over Young, who has raised just $1,422 this year. Lynott has also received a donation from state Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine) and contributions from the campaign committee of Sen. Van Wanggard (R-Racine) and the Milwaukee police union. 

Kelly Gallaher, chair of the Racine County Democratic Party, wrote on Facebook that the race isn’t about who is richer and can afford to put up more yard signs. 

“The richest candidate who can afford to wallpaper the county with her yard signs isn’t the best and most qualified candidate — especially when asking to serve on the circuit court,” Gallaher wrote. “It’s not a yard sign competition. This is a competition to elect a fair, accomplished and dedicated judge.” 

Sauk County  

Baraboo attorney Nancy Thome is running against Reedsburg attorney Blake Duren for an open seat on the Sauk County Circuit Court. 

Duren previously ran for a different seat on the court and has been endorsed by Sauk County District Attorney Mike Albrecht. Thome has run her own practice since 2006. 

Thome has contributed $15,000 to her own campaign while Duren has contributed $5,000 to his. Beside those funds, the race has not included much fundraising. Duren has received just $1,100 in donations while Thome has received $2,800.

Walworth County 

Deputy corporation counsel Estee Scholtz is running against court commissioner Peter Navis in Walworth County. 

Scholtz also previously worked as an assistant district attorney in the county and sits on the town of Geneva police commission. Navis also previously worked in the county corporation counsel’s office. 

Scholtz has given about $3,500 in personal loans to her campaign, about half of the $6,300 her campaign has raised. Navis has received about $4,000 in contributions this year. 

Winnebago County 

Former Judge and Oshkosh common council member LaKeisha Haase is running against court commissioner Michael Rust. 

Haase lost her reelection campaign for her seat on the cour two years ago and then lost another contentious election for a seat last year. This year, she’s considered the front-runner after earning 46.2% of the vote in the February primary. Rust received 28.2% of the vote in that election. 

Haase said her priority would be making sure the branch runs efficiently. 

“As an incoming judge, my primary goal is to uphold the law and ensure that justice is served in all cases presented before the court,” she told the Appleton Post-Crescent. “Drawing on my extensive legal experience, I am confident in my ability to bring efficiency and timeliness to the court system, ensuring that justice is delivered promptly to all parties involved.”

Rust said he would neutrally apply the law while adding that he hopes to address mental health issues in the county. 

“I will fairly and neutrally apply the law, not favoring one type of law or type of party over the others,” he said. “Our country was founded upon three co-equal branches of government. Judicial candidates who wish to change the laws are running directly against the foundation of our nation.”

Rust has almost entirely self-funded his campaign, providing a $10,000 contribution himself while receiving just one other donation of $400 in the most recent filing period. Haase has raised about $2,700 and received consulting services from the state Democratic Party.

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F03%2F28%2Fout-of-56-races-for-circuit-judge-only-10-will-be-contested-next-week%2F by Henry Redman

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