Court Watch

Q&A With Circuit Court Candidates

Blomme, Dedinsky and Whitney make their case for election to Branch 5. Part 1 of two-part story.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Jan 23rd, 2020 01:03 pm
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Left to Right, Brett Blomme, Zach Whitney, Hon. Paul Dedinsky.

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two.

Three candidates in the race for the Milwaukee County Circuit Court Branch 5 bench will compete in the Feb. 18 primary. The top two finishers will advance to the April 7 general election.

The three are challenger Brett Blomme, incumbent Paul Dedinsky, and challenger Zach Whitney.

Blomme is president and CEO of Milwaukee-based Cream City Foundation. He graduated from Marquette University and earned his law degree from the University of Missouri. He formerly was employed by the State Public Defender’s Office and the Madison city attorney’s office. His resume is here.

Dedinsky was appointed to the bench in December 2018 by former Gov. Scott Walker. He spent more than 20 years as a Milwaukee County assistant district attorney, then accepted a job as chief legal counsel to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. He received his undergraduate degree from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska; a Ph.D. from Cardinal Stritch University; and his JD from the University of Wisconsin Law School.  His resume is here.

Whitney is a shareholder at Kohner, Mann & Kailas. Before that, he spent eight years as an assistant district attorney. At Kohner, Whitney has numerous practice areas, including employment and labor law for businesses, bankruptcy, and appeals. He received his law degree from Marquette University Law School and his bachelor’s in Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana. His resume is here.

WJI asked each candidate to answer a series of questions. The questionnaire was patterned after job applications used by Walker and Gov. Tony Evers when they are considering judicial appointments. The answers here are as the candidates submitted them except where the candidate did not stick to the 500-word limit for each answer. The answers were edited for length and is noted.

Why do you want to be a judge?

Blomme: We have a mass incarceration crisis in our state.  My platform adopts the ACLU “Smart Justice” reforms that aims to decrease the state’s incarcerated population by 50% by 2024.  Nothing in our broken criminal justice system will change if we continue to elect the same type of people judges.  We need to start electing judges who represent diverse experiences.  I have served as attorney with the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s office.  Milwaukee County does not need another former prosecutor serving as a judge.  We need more openly LGBTQ+ leaders in the judiciary.  If elected, I will be only the second openly gay male judge in the entire state.  I am a leader in Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ community.

Dedinsky: LEADERSHIP, LEARNING, & SERVICE. It begins with Leadership, Learning, and Service. I became a circuit court judge because of the immense opportunity to influence and help people in a positive way. I once worked for a leader of immense integrity and purpose, a man who inspired a deeper sense of purpose, mission, and vision within others. He advocated eloquently for justice. Years later, this same powerful message still resonates. From him, I learned that attorneys are of limited value without adherence to a higher purpose and mission.

Purpose? The job of a Judge is to hear “cases and controversies.” Whether the cases involve small claims or a large civil action with high stakes, no matter. People deserve fair, impartial treatment in a timely manner. In criminal cases, defendants alleged to have committed violent, egregious offenses deserve to be treated in a respectful, ethical, and dignified manner – in accordance with our high standards of substantive and procedural law. My objective has come true: My courtroom is known for justice as well as a place where people are treated fairly.

Mission? If a person can experience injustice, then a person can also experience justice. The best judges understand that an individual’s experience of justice is significant. As a judge, I am a public servant who serves people. I seek to restore justice.

Vision? To re-create our justice systems to serve people. We need to revitalize. We need innovation. Our court system needs to reach out to the community instead of expecting the community to come to it. For example, at the juvenile court center, our human services workers have their offices in cubicles in Wauwatosa. We need to embed them in the community to improve their accessibility, responsiveness, and presence. Families need support. We need mental health courts and improved services for those suffering from mental health problems. Families in Milwaukee need renewed respect, understanding, and support in so many areas.

​Legal rulings affect people on many levels. I have a great respect for the judiciary, but not just because of the authority and power vested in the judicial branch of government. Judges have the capacity to influence others in a positive direction. I believe that the very best judges understand this potential and sincerely strive to improve our community.

Whitney: I care deeply about our community and the integrity of our courts. Milwaukee is my home, and it is where my wife, Madeline, and I have chosen to raise our two children, Harvey and Frankie, both students at Milwaukee Public Schools. We live in the Jackson Park neighborhood. We love our parks and the wide array of cultural attractions Milwaukee has to offer. We are fully vested in the city and in investing in Milwaukee’s future.

To that end, I’ve been striving for justice in the Milwaukee County Circuit Courts for over fifteen years. I spent eight years as a Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney, where I focused on prosecuting gun violence and domestic violence. I witnessed how violence tears families and neighborhoods apart. It was hard, emotional work, which shaped my commitment to justice. It is a public service of which I’m proud. It helped me understand that our judicial system can only work when both sides are represented equally and diligently.

Like others attempting to provide for their families, my time serving Milwaukee County was cut short by Act 10, which compelled me to leave public service. Since entering private practice, I’ve focused on commercial and business litigation. For the last eight years, I’ve been privileged to represent a wide variety of clients, including many small businesses. It’s been an honor to help “main street” navigate the complexities of our civil court system.

​My background as a trial attorney is vast and my knowledge of our courts is deep. I’m running for Branch 5 of the Circuit Court because the people of Milwaukee County deserve to have my insight and progressive voice on the bench. Milwaukee County residents have the right to elect a member of our community, who has the experience, commitment to justice, and work ethic, to serve as our judge. The people of Milwaukee County also have the right to vote for someone who is choosing to reside with his family in this community, thereby contributing to Milwaukee County’s future. I will be a strong voice for the reforms we so deeply need in our criminal justice system.

Name one of the best U.S. or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last 30 years and why you feel that way

Blomme: Roper v. Simmons; 543 U.S. 551 (2005), was one of the best United States Supreme Court cases in recent memory.  The Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that it is unconstitutional for juveniles to be subjected to the death penalty for any crimes that occurred prior to reaching 18 years of age.  Likening the practice to executing mentally handicap person as outlined in ​Atkins v. Virginia; 536 U.S. 304 (2002), the court held that the execution of juvenile offenders was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteen Amendments of the United States Constitution.

Even though Wisconsin law does not endorse the use of the death penalty in any criminal proceeding, this case still has very significant ramifications for juvenile offenders in Wisconsin.  This case helps shape the understanding of how the judicial system should treat this demographic of offenders.  The majority cited scientific data regarding the characteristics of adolescents – vulnerability to peer pressure, impulsivity, lack of self-control, lack of temporal perspective and susceptibility to coercion and false confessions.

This decision, I believe, endorses the ability of the Wisconsin Judicial system to use this type of scientific data across all aspects of the juvenile delinquency system.  We have even seen recent legislative efforts here in Wisconsin to codify the prohibition of prosecuting juvenile offenders in the adult criminal system.  I believe this case helped paved the way for these types of legislative movements.  Therefore, this is one of the most significant cases in recent history.

Dedinsky: Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008).

The Supreme Court in Boumediene upheld the basic right of every person under the dominion of the United States to be heard in court. The Court extended the Constitutional right to be heard by a judge, through the writ of habeas corpus, to people being detained at Guantanamo Bay, emphasizing that they were entitled to meaningful consideration of a claim that they were being held mistakenly or unlawfully. The opinion also includes an interesting summary of the writ’s history.

Guantanamo is leased to the United States. The United States does not have sovereignty over Guantanamo Bay, and it is not a U.S. territory. However, Justice Kennedy noted that it is a place over which our “government has total military and civil control.” For this reason, the Court reversed a trend where the detainees had been “denied meaningful access to a judicial forum for a period of years.”

​In the past, when asked to select one of the best decisions, I picked an opinion guaranteeing religious freedoms, something personally significant to my family since our daughter belongs to a religious community. But, the Boumediene case is special to me based upon my experiences with MPS high school students who received discipline without the opportunity to express themselves and be heard in a meaningful way by administrators. My experience as an MPS Restorative Justice coordinator has confirmed for me as a judge every day just how vitally important it is that everyone with a complaint of injustice be meaningfully and respectfully heard.

Whitney: In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012), Chief Justice John Roberts gave one of the most important decisions of the last thirty years. This was a landmark decision in which the Supreme Court upheld Congress’ power to enact most provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) centering on the requirement for most Americans to have health insurance (the “individual mandate”).

The Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate to buy health insurance as a constitutional right of the power of Congress and its taxing authority, by a vote of 5-4.

It was argued that the passage of the individual mandate was a use of Congress’ Commerce Clause powers. A majority of the justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, disagreed, stating that the Commerce Clause was not a valid defense of the legislation. Yet, the Chief Justice served as the swing vote to uphold the ACA by alternative means: Congress’ taxing authority.

This was one of the best opinions in recent decades for three reasons. First, it showed that the Supreme Court respects the will of Congress as a duly elected representative body of the United States citizenry and, therefore, the Court will attempt to uphold, rather than strike-down, acts of Congress.

Second, the opinion shows that the Court is an independent branch of government with independent voices. It would have been easy for Chief Justice Roberts to default to partisan tendencies and scrap the ACA, but he did his job through his oath and worked to find a reason to uphold the ACA. That cannot be understated.

​Third, this was the beginning of an era of Chief Justice Roberts making attempts to show that the Court is a nonpartisan institution and not a political arm of either the legislative or executive branch. This effort has intensified in more recent years, but it was one of the most visible efforts, by a Chief Justice nonetheless, to depoliticize the Court as a whole.

Name one of the worst U. S. or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last 30 ​years and explain why you feel that way

Blomme: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is the worst decided case in recent memory.  Many progressives believe this case, which provides a basis for companies to discriminate against woman, could extend to other vulnerable populations and have dangerous consequences for LGBTQ+ communities, immigrant communities, communities of color and others.  It is a very dangerous case.

Dedinsky:Rucho v. Common Cause, 38 S.C. 3424 (2019). 

Not sure that the Rucho case is one of the absolute worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last 30 years, but the opinion sure left me feeling disappointed. The Supreme Court in Rucho decided not to adopt a standard related to partisan gerrymandering, with Chief Justice Roberts deeming the issue as “non-justiciable” in the United States Supreme Court. Roberts certainly recognized that the districting plans at issue were “highly partisan, by any measure.” Nevertheless, the majority restrained itself from exercising an opportunity to remedy the situation.

The outcome essentially leaves the issue to state supreme courts who must tackle the issue, one state at a time. In the meantime, our country’s political parties are seemingly free to use their governmental authority to perpetuate their control or influence over the formulation of districts at the expense of voters. The practice of “packing” and “cracking” throughout the nation by both political parties runs brazenly rampant and continues to foster political divisiveness.

There is a tenet of basic judicial responsibility to decide cases of serious dispute, whereby courts provide an alternative to private expressions of justice. This responsibility was expressed by the Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison, when the Court noted that it was “the duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” This tenet can be traced to a decree of the early English King Edward the Elder, who instructed his judges in the early 900s to “fear not on any account to pronounce folkright,” e.g., common law, the community’s sense of right and wrong, so that the court can provide justice in every suit.

​I see the need as a judge on a daily basis to resolve serious disputes so that courts meet their most basic responsibility to the community.

Whitney: In 2015, former Justice Antonin Scalia delivered a dissent saying the majority decision in Obergefell
v. Hodges
, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), was a “threat to American democracy.” With the majority, the
Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage under the Equal Protection Clause and Free Exercise
Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Scalia’s dissent was one of the worst opinions in the last thirty
years by a Supreme Court Justice.

Scalia stated, “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-
coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.” He believed that the majority decision
was a “constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine.” There have been several instances in which he has been a party, where the “unelected committee of nine” has made a decision that fundamentally took away the rights of local governments to rule and govern themselves. His opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), which held that an individual has a right to keep and bear arms unconnected with service in a militia (contrary to the plain language of the Second Amendment) comes to mind. In Heller, Scalia authored the opinion that struck down Washington D.C.’s efforts to pass reasonable gun control measures. It is with great irony then that in Obergefell Scalia claimed that the majority decision robbed the
American people of the most fundamental liberty found in the Constitution – the freedom to govern
themselves.

Particularly where the rights of minorities are under attack, protection of rights cannot be left to the
states or local governing authorities. Same-sex couples had no legal rights and were treated as
second-class citizens in our nation until the Court took action to proclaim that everyone is equal, and
shall be treated as such.

Scalia’s opinion is one of the worst in the last thirty years because it displays a lack of societal evolution. He stated that the right to marriage was not in the Constitution and, therefore, should not
be recognized for protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. It is deeply troubling that such a
grand lack of compassion was expressed in an opinion from our highest court.

Describe your judicial philosophy

Blomme: The proper role of a judge is to represent the judicial branch of government as the neutral arbitrator of conflict in society.  This is achieved by ensuring that the court is fair and impartial, by allowing all parties’ arguments are heard and considered and by ensuring the production of high quality, well thought out decisions while maintaining high efficiency that moves cases along the judicial process in a timely manner.

First, judges should be fair and impartial.  This is achieved through transparency from the bench.  Within confidentiality limitations, I will work diligently to make certain that the Court is open and accessible to the public.  I will ensure we are providing materials that lay out the criteria and process to pro-se parties and members of the public.  Fairness and impartiality are also achieved by judges conducting themselves as reputable community leaders.  I believe members of the legal community have an obligation to be active and engaged in the civic conversation about building a strong community.

Next, judges should have a commitment ensuring that all parties have an opportunity to present their arguments to the Court.  I will actively listen to all parties’ legal arguments.  I will make legal findings based on the intended application of the law.  Equally important to ensuring that parties and attorneys feel they have had ample opportunity to present their argument is ensuring the Court operates within its intended function.  The duty of the circuit court is to apply and uphold the rule of law and not create new law by inaccurate or inappropriate interpretations.

Finally, judges should produce quality, well-thought out decisions and rulings and move cases along in timely manner.  Preparation is the key to ensuring that judges produce quality oral and written rulings.  As a judge, I would prepare by staying abreast of the most recent changes in the areas of the law and by familiarizing myself with the pleadings and other parts of the case file.  Efficiency is achieved by working with court staff to continually seek to assess and alter internal procedures.

Dedinsky: Respect for People. Respect for the Law. Each circuit court judge takes an oath to uphold the United States and Wisconsin Constitutions. To the legislature was granted the power of fashioning public policy into laws; to the executive was granted the power to administer the law; and to the judicial branch, the power of interpreting and applying the law to cases and controversies.

Honoring statutes, as well as the reasoning of previous judicial decisions and precedent, honors legislative intent, as well as the principles and spirit of the law. Judges must be wary of infusing their own preferences, biases, and political leanings into their decisions. Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule 60 mandates that judges and judicial candidates not affiliate with any political party or seek to influence others through political affiliations. Simply put: Religion and politics have no place in a court of law.

Now that I have served as a judge for over a year, expressing a judicial philosophy is no longer theory. It is what I practice every day. In each case that comes before me, I first prepare by spending the time familiarizing myself with the contents. As hearings proceed, each party has a voice in the process. I ask questions in an even-handed fashion. We aim to solve real-life problems and set the litigants up for success whenever feasible.

With each decision, out comes my statute book. I faithfully apply the law to the facts in a practical and common-sense manner. Recognizing the legislature grants me a good deal of discretion in many circumstances within the children’s code, I make every effort to effectuate positive change in the youth and families who appear in my courtroom. I strive to serve in an even-handed, non-biased manner in obeying authority and applying laws to facts. For these reasons, Respect for People and Respect for the Law are the twin aims that have come to define my judicial philosophy as a judge.

Whitney: My judicial philosophy is founded on the principle of equality and justice. To my core, I have a progressive ideology which leads me to have compassion for those around me and those who are less fortunate.

I feel that society creates a system where some people are placed in an immediate advantage, and others an immediate disadvantage. While decisions of the individual are always theirs and theirs alone, we must never forget that we are all human and therefore make decisions that we regret and that are not reflective of our true character.

There is no excuse to break the law, but we must be aware of the reasoning and rationale for why someone commits any given act. If someone steals a loaf of bread to feed their starving baby, should they be incarcerated? Obviously, this is a simplistic hypothetical designed to foster near universal sympathy for the offender. But the broader point is that the criminal justice system is not a solution to poverty. Nor does incarceration cure addiction or mental illness.

We need more people serving on the bench who recognize such truths and that can empathize with people at a human level. We can’t keep throwing the book at offenders in a futile attempt to rectify societal problems. Instead, we need major reforms to our criminal justice system. We need to stop locking up people for using drugs. Not only is it expensive for the taxpayers in the short term, it is immoral to tear apart families. Moreover, in the long term we pay dearly for the harm caused to our neighborhoods as a result of the endless cycle of incarceration to which many residents are subjected.

Wisconsin has the highest rate of black male incarceration in the country according to a report
prepared several years ago by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Wisconsin also has well over
twice the number inmates in its state prison system as Minnesota, despite having nearly identical
populations and demographics. These are serious problems. It will take efforts from all branches of
government—the courts included—to fashion solutions.

In a nutshell, my judicial philosophy is that we can do better, and we must do better. As a circuit court
judge, I will have the utmost compassion for those who stand before me and I will do what I can to fashion sentences that are fair and just, and which take the longterm wellbeing of our community into
consideration.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation.

Categories: Court Watch, Politics

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