After months of mudslinging, heated accusations and controversy, the Court of Appeals race between Joan Kessler and Charles Schudson will soon end; but some local experts claim the race has left voters more confused than informed.
“The truth is the typical Wisconsin citizen is given virtually no information about candidates in judicial elections by which they would be able to make a thoughtful decision,” said Peter Rofes, professor at Marquette University Law School. According to Rofes, the most important qualities in a Court of Appeals judge–a strong work ethic, a dedicated and serious approach, and responsible leadership–are precisely those characteristics voters are least likely to ascertain from the campaign.
“If they don’t belong to a union or other large interest group that tells them what to do, the average voter won’t have any idea,” he added.
Former State Supreme Court justice Janine Geske agrees. “I really think to get a sense of who the individuals are, what is their history and what kind of work they have done; it helps to know the candidate.”
Unlike many other elected officials, judges do not run on a party platform. “That becomes very frustrating for the public,” Geske said. “They want to know where the candidate stands on issues like tort reform and sexual predator cases; but judges don’t run on platforms. They run on the ability to look impartially at cases.” Instead, Geske said, voters should examine the candidates’ judicial philosophies–especially whether they tend to be expansive or restrictive in their interpretation of the Constitution and case law.
“Some judges will say, ‘It’s my role to make sure justice is done,'” Geske said. “Other judges say, ‘Justice is in the eye of the beholder. My job is strictly to follow the law.'” But, Geske admits, “A lot of these distinctions are complicated for the average person on the street.”
The election will be held April 6. On the same day, Milwaukee residents will also elect a municipal court judge. Although that race, between Judge David Halbrooks and Milwaukee County Court Commissioner Valarie Hill, has received less publicity, Rofes said municipal court elections pose similar problems.
The Court of Appeals handles about 3,500 cases a year. The court handles almost all the appeals from the circuit court. Only about 100 cases a year are heard by the state Supreme Court. “The Court of Appeals’ primary goal is to fix any errors they believe the trial courts have made,” Geske said. Unlike the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals cannot decline to take cases. “For almost every case in Wisconsin, it is the court of last resort,” Schudson said.
“The bottom line is that [the Court of Appeals] affects virtually every topic that would affect people in their daily lives–real estate, crime, divorce, commercial matters.” The Wisconsin Court of Appeals contains 16 judges and is divided into four districts–Milwaukee, Waukesha, Wausau, and Madison. Judges are elected to six-year terms.
Making an informed decision is not only difficult, Rofes said. “It also raises questions as to whether this is the best method of judge selection.” However, Geske believes the election has an important side-effect. “It makes the judges be out there in the public, listening to people, learning what their issues are,” she said. “People who become judges through that process tend to be good judges. In this process, the public really have a voice.”