"Evers' judges" is our effort to present information about Gov. Tony Evers' appointees to the bench. The information is taken from the appointees' own judgeship applications.
Italics indicate direct quotes from the application. Typos, including punctuation errors, come from the original application even though we have not inserted “(sic)” after each one. WJI has left them as is.
Name: Ryan Nilsestuen
Appointed to: Dane County Circuit Court
Appointment date: Dec. 22, 2022 (term ends July 31, 2024)
Law School – University of Wisconsin-Madison
Undergraduate – Luther College, Decorah, Iowa
High School – DeForest Area High School, DeForest, Wisconsin
Recent legal employment:
January 2019-present – Chief legal counsel, Office of the Governor, Madison, Wisconsin
June 2011-January 2019 – Chief legal counsel, attorney, LTE, and law clerk, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Madison, Wisconsin
Bar and administrative memberships:
State Bar of Wisconsin
General character of practice:
I lead a team of talented attorneys who advise Gov. Evers and his Administration on everything from routine legal matters to high-stakes litigation. This includes successfully advising and representing key decision makers on issues that impact the entire state of Wisconsin, including redistricting, elections, separation of powers challenges, employment cases, and public records lawsuits.
I also chair the Governor's Pardon Advisory Board. In this role, I have assisted Gov. Evers in pardoning hundreds of individuals who have made amends and completed serving their felony sentence.
Describe typical clients:
I represent Gov. Evers and his administration. As a result, I have significant experience in a wide variety of areas in the law, including administrative, constitutional, contract, criminal, elections, employment, and public records law.
Number of cases tried to verdict: Unknown (most litigation experience in administrative contested case hearings)
List up to three significant trials, appeals, or other legal matters in which you participated as a judge or lawyer in the past seven years:
Coyne v. Walker, 2016 WI 38, 368 Wis.2d 444.
I successfully represented then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District IV, (Judge Sherman authored the decision) and the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I drafted all of the briefs and argued the case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. DPI Chief Legal Counsel Janet Jenkins was my co-counsel. There were numerous opposing counsel, including Maria Lazar, Timothy Barber, David Meany, Andy Cook, and Daniel Lennington.
This case challenged the constitutionally of 2011 Act 21, which gave the governor veto-like authority over administrative rules promulgated by state agencies, including rules promulgated by the state superintendent of public instruction. The decision was significant because it upheld the independence of the state superintendent, as intended by the framers of our state constitution.
Koshkee v. Evers, 2018 WI 82, 382 Wis.2d 666.
Along with DPI Attorney Benjamin Jones, I represented then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers in an original action which re-litigated the result of Coyne v. Walker. Before we could argue the case on the merits, an issue arose of who could represent the DPI and State Superintendent Evers. The Attorney General argued that only the Department of Justice could do so. Even more problematic, the Attorney General argued that he alone determined the ends of representation, even if it was contrary to the client's position (and in violation of the Supreme Court's Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys). Opposing counsel were Misha Tseytlin and Ryan Walsh. We prevailed before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. This case is significant because it established that state officials, sued in their official capacity, are the client and, as such, the Attorney General may not dictate their litigation positions.
Experience in adversary proceedings before administrative bodies:
As an attorney with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, I participated in numerous administrative proceedings. This included defending the department in employment matters before the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division, the Labor & Industry Review Commission, and the Division of Hearings and Appeals. I also represented the department in matters before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I also have experience overseeing administrative proceedings. For example, I chair the Governor's Pardon Advisory Board, which has heard from hundreds of pardon applicants. I also am a member of the Wisconsin State Claims Board, which hears claims made against the State of Wisconsin.
Describe your non-litigation experience (e.g., arbitration, mediation).
I have significant non-litigation legal experience, including: negotiating, drafting, and reviewing contracts; conducting investigations in employment, civil rights, and licensing matters; drafting final agency decisions; drafting administrative rules; handling public records requests; advising on state ethics matters; and participating in mediations.
Position or involvement in judicial, non-partisan, or partisan political campaign, committee, or organization:
Volunteer (multiple campaigns since 2004)
Previous runs for public office: None listed.
All judicial or non-partisan candidates endorsed in the last ten years:
Susan Crawford judicial campaign, 2018
Professional or civic and charitable organizations:
Inns of Court, 2020-present
American Constitution Society, 2020-present
Significant pro bono legal work or volunteer service: Since 1998, I have volunteered numerous times for Habitat for Humanity.
Why I want to be a judge:
I want to be a judge because I strongly believe in the need for a strong, independent judiciary to protect our democracy and constitutional rights.
Following the 2020 presidential election, scores of lawsuits, including six in Wisconsin, were filed across the nation in an unprecedented effort to overturn the free, fair, and accurate results. Each of these lawsuits failed. But some of them came close. In Trump v. Eiden, 2020 WI 91, 349 Wis.2d 629, the former president's campaign sought to disqualify the votes of 220,000 people in Dane and Milwaukee Counites. A slim 4-3 majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the former president's claims either had "no basis in reason or law" or were barred by laches.
It shouldn't have been such a close vote. Unfortunately, this lawsuit and others across the nation demonstrated just how fragile our democracy is. It also was a reminder of the critical role the judiciary plays in protecting our democracy and constitutional rights.
Describe which case in the past 25 years by the Wisconsin Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court you believe had a significant positive or negative impact on the people of Wisconsin.
In Johnson et al v. Wisconsin Elections Commission, 2022 WI 19, the Wisconsin Supreme Court adopted new legislative maps authored by the Wisconsin Legislature, effectively overriding the Governor's veto of those same maps. In doing so, the Court gave its approval to the most gerrymandered and partisan maps in the nation.
This decision has had a significant and profoundly negative impact on the people of Wisconsin. First, the ultimate decision - and the process the Court used to get there - undermined the Court's credibility as independent, non partisan branch of government. As Justice John Paul Stevens once wrote, "It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law." Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 128 (2000).
The public's confidence in the judiciary is undermined when courts search for a result, especially a highly partisan result, rather than find the answer required by the faithful application of the law. That is exactly what the Court did in Johnson, where the Court's "least changes" approach was unmoored to Wisconsin law.
Second, the decision thwarts the ability of the people of Wisconsin to have a truly representative government. By adopting highly partisan and gerrymandered maps, the Court ensured that one party will remain in control of the legislative branch of government even if a large majority of Wisconsinites vote for the opposing party. This prevents the people of Wisconsin from being able to have a truly representative government.
Two or three judges whom I admire and why:
I greatly admire Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Anne Walsh Bradley. Justice Walsh Bradley is the paradigm of what a justice should be. She is always well-versed in the arguments made by the parties appearing before the Court. She asks insightful questions that illicit the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments being made. Finally, no matter how contentious a case is, she always maintains a respectful demeanor to her fellow justices and the litigants.
I also admire former Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. One of the most memorable experiences I had as a law student was watching an oral argument before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Some of the justices asked difficult or "gotcha" questions. Others offered softball or "lifeline" questions. But Justice Abrahamson's approach showed her unparalleled intelligence and humor. I was in awe off how she carefully conducted a series of questions which led the attorneys to a conclusion that may (or may not) benefit their position. At the same time, her questioning undermined or supported questions asked by the other justices.
Beyond her brilliance, I admire Justice Abrahamson's impact on the law and work ethic. The numbers speak for themselves. She authored 525 majority opinions, 493 dissenting opinions, and 326 concurring opinions. And, at the same time, she gave countless speeches and wrote scores of articles on the law. No other justice has had such an impact on Wisconsin law.
The proper role of a judge:
Entire essays and books have been written on the role of a judge. But I believe the preamble to the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct best summarizes the role and importance of judges:
Our legal system is based on the principle that an independent, fair and competent judiciary will interpret and apply the laws that govern us. The role of the judiciary is central to American concepts of justice and the rule of law... [J]udges, individually and collectively, must respect and honor the judicial office as a public trust and strive to enhance and maintain confidence in our legal system. The judge is an arbiter of facts and law for the resolution of disputes and a highly visible symbol of government under the rule of law.
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