The Rev. Everett Mitchell speaks at a Tony Robinson protest in 2015. Since becoming a Dane County judge last year, Mitchell has remained engaged as a minister and activist.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell starts a recent Friday bright and early at Mendota Elementary School, speaking to parents at a National African American Parent Involvement Day event about the importance of being engaged in their children’s lives. Later, he hustles over to Hawthorne Elementary on his lunch hour to read with students and answer questions about what it’s like to be a judge. “The kids were happy, because they thought I was like Judge Judy,” Mitchell says. “Everything they know about judges is what they see on TV.”
For Mitchell, who was elected in April 2016 and now handles juvenile court cases, demystifying the criminal justice system is an essential part of his new job — particularly when his audience includes youth and families of color.
Mitchell acknowledges that he wears a lot of hats, but he feels his community engagement makes him a better, fairer judge. “I think it’s important for a judge to really be involved so that people can get a vision of the judiciary that isn’t distant and apart from the community,” Mitchell says. “It is a different approach, and I don’t think it’s an approach that every judge has taken.”
Wisconsin’s Judicial Code of Conduct lays out guidelines in state statute for how judges and judicial candidates should behave in order to “enhance and maintain” public confidence in the legal system. Because of the judiciary’s unique role as an impartial arbiter of facts, judges are, among other things, barred from making partisan endorsements, practicing law or serving as mediators in private cases. While some judges opt to steer clear of advocacy work while serving on the bench, Mitchell says his new role hasn’t forced him to cut back on much of his community involvement.
“Doing both allows me to practice these values that I think are important — treating people like human beings, seeing them as human beings,” Mitchell says. “All the guiding values that I extract — Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, bell hooks, even George Carlin — I try to use all of that in my approach for what I do from the bench.”
When individuals aspire to the judiciary, they do so knowing that some of their civic activities are going to be limited, says Maryann Sumi, a former Dane County Circuit Court judge and former associate dean of the Wisconsin Judicial College, where she taught courses on judicial conduct and ethics. “Really, what it comes down to is the integrity and independence of the judiciary,” Sumi says. “It’s part of what goes into being a judge.”
While some of the rules in the judicial code of conduct are authoritative and binding, others are more flexible, meaning judges and judicial candidates can use their own discretion and situational context to help guide their decisions. For example, Mitchell recently made the decision to endorse Wanda Smith, a candidate for Fitchburg alder. The endorsement is allowed because it’s a nonpartisan race, but it’s rare for judges to endorse candidates, other than for judicial races.
“There’s nothing that prohibits [nonpartisan endorsements]. Some choose to do it, others choose not to,” says Sumi, who only endorsed judicial candidates during her time on the bench. “Those who choose not to want to avoid the appearance of partisanship,” she adds. “And if you feel like maybe you’ve said something that may cause others to question your partiality, it’s a judge’s duty to get off the case.”
Community involvement comes naturally for Mitchell. Before becoming judge, he served as a mentor to the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. A former Dane County assistant district attorney, Mitchell was most recently director of community relations for UW-Madison, where he helped the university expand its presence on the city’s racially diverse south side.
Since becoming judge, Mitchell has also continued to serve as pastor at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, usually working there in the evenings. He doesn’t get paid, but receives a housing allowance from the congregation. Mitchell says his compensation arrangement is within the code of conduct guidelines.
Mitchell knows his background as an activist and a pastor sets him apart from his colleagues on the bench. But he also believes that his experience and perspective make him uniquely suited to bring about the criminal justice reform needed to address Dane County’s massive racial disparity in incarceration rates. He spent Thanksgiving and Christmas last year at the Dane County jail, celebrating the holidays with incarcerated youth.
“It was important for me to go and spend that time with them so they know that I’m concerned about them — not as a judge, but as a human being, too,” he says. One of his proudest achievements so far as judge was leading the charge on a recent policy change eliminating the use of handcuffs for most juvenile offenders when they are brought into court.
There was talk of doing away with the use of restraints in juvenile courts in 2014, but the judges on the bench at that time opted to leave the policy in place, says John Bauman, Dane County’s juvenile court administrator. Mitchell revisited the issue at a judge’s meeting last fall and worked with Judge Shelley Gaylord, Dane County’s presiding juvenile judge, to coordinate with bailiffs and other stakeholders to implement the change.
“This was a decades-, maybe centuries-old policy that shifted in a matter of months so we can return back to these kids a sense of humanity,” Mitchell says. “If we don’t want them to become adult criminals, we shouldn’t treat them like adult criminals.”