Jeramey Jannene

Race For Municipal Judge Gets Little Attention

Attorney Molly Gena and Senator Lena Taylor vying for open seat on city court.

By - Mar 27th, 2023 04:47 pm
Molly Gena and Sen. Lena Taylor. Gena photo provided, Taylor photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Molly Gena and Sen. Lena Taylor. Gena photo provided, Taylor photo by Jeramey Jannene.

While the Wisconsin Supreme Court race is drawing record spending and what seems like endless headlines, a quiet but important race is underway for an open seat on the Milwaukee Municipal Court.

Legal Action of Wisconsin managing attorney Molly Gena and State Senator Lena Taylor, a licensed attorney, are vying for the seat.

The vacancy, the first on the three-judge court since 2007, was created by the resignation of longtime judge Derek Mosley.

The winner will serve a four-year term on the city’s court overseeing ordinance violations. Common offenses include speeding tickets, parking citations, building code violations and first-time OWIs.

The court plays a key role in suspending or reinstating driver’s licenses, with the vast majority of the court’s 50,000 cases in 2021 being for traffic violations.

Gena has worked for Legal Action since 2007, having become its managing attorney in 2019. At a candidate forum, Gena said she’s represented clients before the court for 15 years. “It’s been like a second place I’ve been working,” said Gena in a Jan. 25 forum hosted by the Wisconsin Justice Initiative. She said she appeared before the court at least once a week for more than a decade. “I’ve really seen so much of the court’s practices and how they do impact everyone.”

Taylor was first elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2003, and the Wisconsin State Senate in 2004. She has been re-elected four times. The senator worked as a public defender for two years and has maintained a private practice while serving in the Legislature.

In an interview with Urban Milwaukee, she cited her experience hosting free legal clinics and her past partnerships with Milwaukee Area Technical College and Greater New Birth Church to restore suspended driver’s licenses.

Taylor said she has worked in the Legislature to institute criminal justice reform measures. “This provides an opportunity for me to do it on the front lines,” said Taylor at the forum. “I bring a perspective to the job that is missing across the board for us, which is diversity.” She has been a leading advocate in the Legislature for creating a new youth prison in Milwaukee as an alternative to the troubled Lincoln Hills facility.

In an interview, she said she was the right candidate to inspire people and to bring her lived experience to the role.

Since being elected to the state senate, Taylor has run for county executive, for mayor twice and had an aborted run for lieutenant governor. She pledged at the forum to serve her entire judicial term if elected.

Both candidates said they would actively review city ordinances and their enforcement in making rulings from the bench.

“I believe that municipal court is the people’s court. I believe it’s the first step where we can create another standard, where we can encourage people to be engaged, where we can use restorative justice,” said Taylor.

Gena, citing a prostitution case, referenced her experience representing a woman charged with “not having an escort license, which is something that you can’t get. The city does not actually give licenses for escorts, but there is an ordinance requiring you have it.” The attorney said a $775 citation was issued in lieu of the requested community service, despite the client working on getting their GED and being connected to the Benedict Center. She said it was important for the court to expand its pre-diversion program for individuals working to better themselves.

Taylor and Gena both emphatically oppose framing the court as a revenue driver for the city.

“The court is not supposed to be bringing in revenue. That is not its main function,” said Gena. “When they do jail people for not paying, it’s costing the city more to do that.” She endorsed the use of community service. “I think the court can really hold people accountable while making sure they get to work and support their families.”

“I am not of the belief system that we should just prioritize the revenue that is coming in. I am of the belief system that we should prioritize people,” said Taylor. The senator went a step further and said she didn’t think the nascent discussion about eliminating one of the three judges, floating during the city’s last budget cycle as a cost-saving measure given its falling case load, was appropriate. She said the court’s revenue already exceeds its expenses.

Gena said, in order to make the court more accessible, she wanted to restore the court’s prior practice of allowing people to walk in without a scheduled hearing and have their matters reviewed with paying a fee.

Taylor said she would like to find ways to make the court more accessible, but said she didn’t have a specific proposal. “I will bring that innovative thinking I have always brought to the table,” said Taylor. “I am not known for not speaking up for the places we need to improve.”

Endorsements and Bar Survey Rankings

Gena has picked up a number of endorsements, including from circuit court judges Cynthia DavisDanielle SheltonEllen BrostromKatie KegelKori AshleyKristela CerveraLaura Gramling Perez, and Nidhi Kashyap, Sen. Chris Larson, Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic and retired municipal judge James A. Gramling, Jr.

Taylor, in an interview, said she is not seeking endorsements. “I have a record to stand for,” said Taylor citing her legislative experience.

A Milwaukee Bar Association survey of area attorneys found far more support for Gena’s qualifications than Taylor’s. Of the 190 respondents with an opinion of Gena, 5% said she was unqualified. Of the 228 respondents with an opinion of Taylor, 73% said she wasn’t qualified.

Taylor did not attend a March 20 forum with the Milwaukee Bar Association, citing a scheduling conflict.

Gena is a 2007 graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School. Taylor is a 1993 graduate of the South Illinois University School of Law.

Gena’s husband, Raphael Ramos, serves on the board of the Wisconsin Justice Initiatve that hosted the candidate forum.

Milwaukee municipal judges are paid $133,049 annually.

Wisconsin Justice Initiative Forum

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Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

2 thoughts on “Race For Municipal Judge Gets Little Attention”

  1. Slund says:

    I’ve worked with Molly Gena in municipal courts for nearly 10 years. I know she cares deeply about Milwaukee Municipal Court and will work hard to improve it. I’m so glad she’s running to be judge!

  2. blurondo says:

    Undoubtedly one of the candidates is a judge and the other is a politician.

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