Graham Kilmer

Evers Appointment Shakes Up Judicial Race

Schwantes drops out of circuit court race, endorses Evers' appointee Jon Richards.

By - Sep 23rd, 2020 07:26 pm
Susan Roth and Travis Schwantes

Susan Roth and Travis Schwantes

The race for the Circuit Court Judge seat in Branch 30 was shaken up Monday when Gov. Tony Evers announced he appointed a local attorney to fill the seat.

One of the two attorneys running for the seat, State Public Defender Travis Schwantes, announced he was withdrawing from the race and endorsing Evers’ appointee, Attorney Jon Richards.

Jon Richards

Jon Richards

Richards served for 15 years as a state representative from Milwaukee. And he’s practiced civil law for more than two decades. He is a partner at the law firm of Ziino, Germanotta, Knoll and Christensen. “Now more than ever, we need to address the racial disparities in our justice system and recognize that there are barriers that stand in the way of justice,” Richards said in a statement announcing his appointment.

The seat was held by Judge Jeffrey A. Conen for more than 20 years. In July, Schwantes filed to run for Conen’s seat and shortly after this Conen announced he would not seek re-election in Spring 2021 and would step down this November.

In a post on Facebook, Conen said he would leave the bench on November 5 and join the law firm of Hansen Reynolds. “Some of you are under the wrong impression that somehow I have been forced to leave the bench because I am afraid to run a contested race,” Conen wrote. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Conen said he decided to leave the bench a year prior and has been “talking to law firms about the next phase of my career for the last six months.”

After Conen announced his decision not to run, Susan Roth, a criminal defense attorney and partner at Kohn Smith Roth, filed to run for the seat and Conen endorsed her.

When Schwantes announced his withdrawal and endorsement of Richards for the seat, he said, “I believe Jon is a good man, with the right values, and a deep understanding of the law and its effect on our community. He has my full support.”

Schwantes said he still wants to serve on the bench, and will “continue to be an applicant for forthcoming vacancies, and I will also be considering running for a different branch in the future.”

In his statement after being appointed, Richards struck a tone similar to the one Schwantes released upon announcing his candidacy. He said that he would assume his duties on the bench with an eye towards effecting change in the justice system. And he advocated for expanding sentencing alternatives to prison “such as drug treatment courts and other diversion courts, and address the root causes of crime and violence.”

Richards said he has developed an understanding of how “economics and power shape the issues and people appearing before the court.” And he said he will bring that with him to the bench.

One local observer of judicial races noted that the Schwantes campaign felt like it was going up against the entrenched “courthouse crowd” when he filed to run against an incumbent Conen, and then Roth, whom Conen endorsed. Now that Roth is running against the incumbent, an appointee by the governor, is she the challenger to the establishment?

After Richards appointment was announced, a spokesperson for the Roth campaign told Urban Milwaukee via email that “the temporary appointment to fill the vacancy does not affect her decision, and she will remain in the race.”  The statement added that “after the news broke, more legal professionals have joined her campaign and are publicly endorsing her candidacy.”

Attorney Tom Ogorchock, a veteran litigator in Milwaukee and partner at Miller & Ogorchock, is supporting Roth and told Urban Milwaukee that Richards’ appointment is too close to the coming election for the name recognition that helps incumbent judges.

Ogorchock said he’s known Roth a long time and that he likes seeing private practice attorneys on the bench, because they bring a different perspective. A perspective, he added, that for a long time was uncommon as it was rare for a judge to come out of private practice, he said.

In the past, “No one dared run against an incumbent,” he said, out of concern that a judge likely to be re-elected would hold it against that attorney, or that it would upset the status-quo. And that made it difficult for challengers to get support from the bar. That being said, Ogorchock doesn’t think the local bar will look upon Roth’s challenge to Richards’ unfavorably.

“I think this is two fresh faces for the most part,” he said.

Evers made another appointment, along with that of Jon Richards, picking Reyna Morales, a veteran of the State Public Defender’s Office to the seat left by retiring Judge David Hansher.

Categories: Politics, Weekly

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