Marilyn Townsend (left) and Jill Karofsky will face off in April 4 election.
Two longtime Madison-area attorneys, both with more than two decades of legal experience and progressive reputations, are seeking election to the Dane County Circuit Court.
Marilyn Townsend, a labor and employment attorney and municipal court judge in the village of Shorewood Hills, will face Jill Karofsky, executive director of the Office of Crime Victim Services for the state Department of Justice and a former Dane County prosecutor, in the spring election on April 4. The candidates are vying for the seat formerly occupied by Judge David Flanagan, who retired last year. Gov. Scott Walker appointed former Assistant Attorney General Clayton Kawski to the seat in July as Flanagan’s replacement. A spokesperson for Kawski confirmed to Isthmus that he is not seeking election.
Townsend and Karofsky both describe themselves as advocates for victims’ rights and support alternatives to incarceration and jail diversion programs like youth restorative justice, drug court and veterans court. Both were born and raised in Wisconsin, both teach at UW-Madison Law School and both also enjoy support from prominent local progressives.
Though similar in judicial philosophy and liberal appeal, the candidates’ main difference is in their experience. Townsend says her background sets her apart, not only from her opponent, but also from the majority of Dane County judges.
“We have 17 judges in Dane County, and many of them are former prosecutors and former Justice Department attorneys,” Townsend says. “No one has my background of representing individuals who have challenged governments, large companies, large institutions. I would bring that perspective to the bench.”
But Karofsky says there’s a reason many Circuit Court judges have similar backgrounds — being a prosecutor and a DOJ employee is excellent preparation to serve on the bench. “The courts need people who have that knowledge,” she says. “[Townsend’s] argument is similar to [the arguments of] Donald Trump — being different for the sake of being different.”
Karofsky touts her work expanding access to justice for marginalized individuals — people of color, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She was Wisconsin’s first Violence Against Women Resource Prosecutor and serves on a number of boards, including the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse, the Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Response Team, and Wisconsin’s Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board. She also emphasizes her experience handling more than 10,000 criminal cases, saying “these are the exact same cases” she would hear as a judge.
“The criminal justice system is extremely complicated,” she says. “We need someone who understands how the system works.”
Townsend says her three terms as a municipal court judge have prepared her well to serve on the Circuit Court. Though municipal court judges typically deal with civil cases, traffic violations and misdemeanors, Townsend says as a Circuit Court judge she would work with many of the same statutes, as well as constitutional issues.
“I’m very sensitive to the rights of individuals,” she says. “It’s important that a judge serve as an arbiter of fairness and a check on the power of the prosecution.”
Campaign finance reports filed with the state Ethics Commission show that Karofsky’s campaign has raised nearly $46,000, including a $38,000 contribution from Karofsky herself, and has paid about $10,700 to campaign manager Melissa Mulliken, a longtime political consultant. Townsend has put $9,000 into her campaign and has received one donation of $100. She spent $6,000 on miscellaneous expenses.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the new name of the agency formerly known as the Government Accountability Board.