Judicial elections are supposed to be nonpartisan, which means it is often hard to figure out who you're voting for and what the candidates' ideologies are.
But the race for the Dane County Circuit Court's branch 16 offers a unique look at the philosophies of the two candidates, Rebecca St. John and Rhonda Lanford. St. John - who was appointed to the post by Gov. Scott Walker last Aug. 24 after Judge Sarah O'Brien retired - had to apply for the job. In her application, St. John was asked to give a best- and worst-case example decided by either the U.S. or Wisconsin Supreme Courts in the past 30 years.
Her answers have become campaign fodder. The two candidates debated them at the Dane County Bar Association forum this week.
St. John listed the state Supreme Court's decision on Dimitri Henley (PDF) as one of the best decisions and the same court's ruling on Ralph D. Armstrong (PDF) as one of the worst. Both cases involve men who appealed convictions.
In the Henley case, the court voted 4-to-3 in July 2010 to overturn a circuit court's decision to grant Henley a new trial for his sexual assault conviction. In praising the decision, St. John writes that the court "rejected the notion that circuit courts have inherent authority to order a new trial in the interest of justice 'at any time, unbound by concerns of finality and proper procedural mechanisms.'"
St. John wrote that the Supreme Court's 2005 decision overturning Armstrong's conviction in the 1980 murder and rape of Charise Kamps is a bad one. The case, also a 4-to-3 decision, was reconsidered, in part, because of new DNA evidence. St. John writes: "Armstrong is a bad decision - one of the worst - because the Supreme Court ignored the plain language of Wis. Stat. 974.06 and acted without any procedural mechanism for doing so. Interest of justice claims are not constitutional claims.... With its recognition of inherent authority, the Supreme Court assumed power not given to it."
Lanford, who works at Habush Habush & Rottier, says she couldn't disagree more with St. John. "I would flip those cases," she says. "I would say Henley is one of the worst and Armstrong one of the best."
Lanford says St. John's take on the Armstrong case is troubling: "She wrote that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to overturn, even though DNA evidence showed he did not commit the crime. An innocent man would be sitting in prison for the rest of his life. She said it's the worst case."
St. John contends that people are "misconstruing" her take on those cases.
"I firmly believe that judges have not only authority but the duty to overturn convictions if there's newly discovered evidence," she says. "My critique about the Armstrong case was not that they reversed his conviction…. My critique was that they didn't rely on the newly discovered evidence standard and test that they set forth."
St. John adds that while judges have a "tremendous duty" to protect defendants' rights, "the state also has a right to prosecute cases, and victims have a need for finality."
The two candidates both point to their experience as why they're the best person for the job.
Before becoming a judge, St. John worked for the state Department of Justice. She says she's worked in every area of law that circuit courts oversee: criminal, civil, family and juvenile cases. Prior to coming to Wisconsin, she worked in D.C. in family and child law.
"I'm not somebody who has always wanted to be a judge," St. John says. "I came to it recently and realized how much good I could do as a judge on issues I've dedicated my career as a lawyer to: domestic violence, child abuse and understanding trauma that's caused by those things and how it leads to root causes of crime and drug abuse."
Lanford points not just to her legal experience - working as a trial lawyer and teaching at UW Law School - but also her life experience as a reason she'll be a good judge. Lanford grew up in poverty and was one of the first in her family to go to college.
"I learned early on that people who lack education and money can get left behind and taken advantage of," she says. "People come to judges seeking justice. Many people come without lawyers. The judge's role is not to be an advocate, but to make sure they're treated properly and fairly and with dignity."
The April 2 election will fill the seat for a six-year term. Circuit court judges make $128,600 a year.
[Editor's note: Isthmus news editor, Judith Davidoff, is Rhonda Lanford's partner. Davidoff had no involvement in writing or editing this article.]