Recibir una multa y asistir a una audiencia tribunal puede ser muy estresante e intimidante cuando no está familiarizado con el proceso. Ese estrés puede ser agravado para aquellos que no hablan inglés, ya que los procedimientos se llevan a cabo en inglés. Wisconsin Justice Initiative ha creado este video para ayudar a aquellos que hablan español y necesitan navegar audiencias tribunales municipales de Wisconsin.
(Receiving a ticket and going to municipal court can be stressful and intimidating if you aren't familiar with the process. Because proceedings are held in English, that stress can be multiplied for those who do not speak English as a first language. Wisconsin Justice Initiative has created this video to help those who speak Spanish navigate municipal courts in Wisconsin.)
Many thanks to the following for their support of this project:
By Gretchen Schuldt
The city of Milwaukee ran straight into the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law when two Municipal Court judges tried to shortcut and back channel their way into firing JusticePoint, the longtime operator of a successful program to divert impoverished defendants from forfeitures and fees they cannot pay.
Assistant City Attorney Kathryn Block told a Common Council committee that Municipal Court Judges Phil Chavez and Valarie Hill had legitimate cause to fire JusticePoint, but declined to say what that cause was. The two judges did not consult the city's third judge, Molly Gena, on the matter or even tell her firing the agency was under consideration.
The city chose not to fire JusticePoint for cause under its contract with the agency, which would have required notice and an opportunity to cure the practices. Instead, the city terminated JusticePoint for the city's convenience without telling the agency or the public exactly what it was that JusticePoint did wrong.
That decision prompted JusticePoint to take the city to Milwaukee County Circuit Court, alleging in a lawsuit that the city's manipulations violated the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law. Circuit Judge Hannah Dugan ruled that JusticePoint had a reasonable chance of prevailing on the merits and issued a temporary restraining order blocking the contract termination until Oct. 5, when another hearing will be held. (The hearing originally was scheduled for Oct. 31.)
The WFDL is almost 50 years old and was adopted partly to "protect dealers against unfair treatment by grantors, who inherently have superior economic power and superior bargaining power in the negotiation of dealerships."
The city's "convenience clause" in its contract with JusticePoint would allow the city to terminate the pact for any reason with just 10 days' written notice, but a judge could find that clause a dead letter. The WFDL specifically prohibits dealership relationships from being "varied by contract or agreement. Any contract or agreement purporting to do so is void and unenforceable to that extent only."
Block argued in court that JusticePoint did not qualify as a dealership because it did not charge its litigant clients for services. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found way back in 1989, however, that a book distributor who did not sell goods or services to downstream customers still qualified as a dealer through its distribution activities alone.
Jeffrey Mandell, in court and in JusticePoint's $5 million claim against the city, argued that JusticePoint met the required qualifications of a dealership under the law.
First, he said, it has a contract with the city. JusticePoint has been providing Municipal Court Alternative program services since 2014, he said.
Second, JusticePoint distributes services on behalf of the city, "assisting approximately 11,000 individuals since 2015," he wrote in the claim letter.
Finally, he said, a "community of interest," which he acknowledged was a "slippery concept," exists between the city and JusticePoint. The state Supreme Court established two guideposts — a continuing financial interest and interdependence — and the JusticePoint-city relationship meets both, he said. JusticePoint has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to run its Milwaukee program.
"The city benefits significantly from JusticePoint's efforts not only inasmuch as JusticePoint fulfills the inherent purposes of the program, but also because JusticePoint increases the City's goodwill and advances prosocial causes, thereby improving the city as a whole and the Municipal Court in particular," he wrote in the Circuit Court suit. Interdependence is shown through the agency's close and continuing collaboration with city officials, he said.
Under the WFDL, the city cannot terminate the JusticePoint contract without providing a 90-day notice, detailing the grounds for termination, and providing JusticePoint with an opportunity to cure, Mandell said in the suit.
The city has done none of those things, he said.
By Gretchen Schuldt
A Milwaukee County circuit judge on Monday granted a temporary restraining order blocking the city of Milwaukee from terminating JusticePoint's contract to operate the Municipal Court's program that steers indigent defendants to appropriate services and coordinates community service opportunities for people who qualify for alternatives to forfeitures.
Circuit Judge Hannah Dugan said, among other things, that JusticePoint had a reasonable probability of success on the merits and would be irreparably harmed without the restraining order. She set a further hearing for Oct. 31 before Circuit Judge J.D. Watts.
"Everything has to stay the status quo according to the contract," she said.
Sheldyn Himle, chief court administrator of Municipal Court, declined to comment on the ruling.
JusticePoint on Sunday filed suit against the city, alleging the manner in which it was terminated — allegedly without cause, without proper notice, and without a chance to cure any deficiency — violated state law. JusticePoint filed a $5 million claim with the city on June 30 as a precursor to the lawsuit.
Two Municipal Court judges, Phil Chavez and Valarie Hill, arranged the contract termination without consulting the third judge, Molly Gena. The termination was to be effective at the end of the day Monday, July 10. The city never made public any specific allegations against JusticePoint, but said the contract was terminated for the city's "convenience."
The firm's CEO, Nick Sayner, has said the only potential problem he was aware of was JusticePoint's practice of providing copies of municipal citations to Legal Action of Wisconsin attorneys representing the indigent defendants involved in the cases.
Sayner has said the agreement to provide the tickets was hammered out five or more years ago in negotiations involving both JusticePoint and city officials, including representatives of the city attorney's office. When Municipal Court raised concerns about it last March, he said, JusticePoint stopped providing the citations.
WJI will update this story, so check back for more on the hearing. Read our previous JusticePoint coverage here, here, and here. WJI policy analyst Gretchen Schuldt wrote about the issue for the Shepherd Express here.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Milwaukee Municipal Court judges are routinely violating state law in a way that "undermines" a defendant's right to appeal some cases to Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Legal Action of Wisconsin said in a new lawsuit.
The suit, technically a petition for a supervisory writ, asks Circuit Judge Pedro Colon to command Municipal Court and its judges to electronically record, as required by law, every hearing held to determine inability to pay a judgment due to poverty and every hearing on reopening a case.
The suit names as defendants Milwaukee Municipal Court, its chief administrator, Sheldyn Himle, and Judges Phillip Chavez, Valarie Hill, and Molly Gena.
Gena, who assumed office in May, is the former managing attorney of Legal Action. Himle declined to comment.
The petition was filed on behalf of a Municipal Court litigant who was unable to appeal a case because her hearings were not recorded, according to the suit.
The woman appeared at a Municipal Court hearing via Zoom in September 2020, according to the suit.
At that hearing, the Municipal Court judge ordered the woman, a single mother who receives Social Security disability benefits, to satisfy her outstanding debt by an installment payment plan, Legal Action attorney Susan Lund wrote.
"The court must have discussed (the woman's) income and ability to pay before determining that a payment arrangement was necessary or setting the amount of her installment payments," she wrote. "The only record of this hearing, the docket, provides no information about those discussions. The record does show that if (the woman) did not pay, the court would automatically issue a warrant, a routine practice of several Milwaukee Municipal Court judges."
The woman appeared at another hearing in February 2021, after a warrant was issued.
"The docket reflects, 'Def told how to resolve this cs and DL susp 30% of cs 20015220 and 20015221,' " Lund wrote.
"There is no further explanation of what this phrase means, much less any information about whether the judge considered all necessary factors and issues," she said. "It seems clear that there was some discussion of (the woman's) ability to pay, but there is no explanation in the docket for why the judge failed to lift the warrant when (the woman) was a recipient of means-tested public assistance."
Under state law, recipients of such public assistance automatically are presumed unable to pay, and a judge must suspend or extend payment or consider community service as an alternative.
The woman appeared in another case that same day. The docket for that one states, “ 'Def given information of 30% being $82 to terminated DL suspension,' " according to the suit.
"Once again, the Court failed to record the hearing, though money and ability to pay must have been discussed," Lund wrote. "Once again, the docket provides no information about what law or facts the judge considered during the hearing or why the judge decided not to lift (the woman's) driver’s license suspension."
The woman owes a total of $428 in three cases, the petition says. In two cases, Municipal Court listed, as an alternative to payment, "Commitment – Consecutive for 4 days," a reference to incarceration for four days. In the other case, the Court listed as an alternative a one-year suspension of the woman's driver's license.
The woman "has been notified by standard computer-generated notices that failure to pay by the due date will result in automatic enforcement of the sanctions for nonpayment," Lund wrote.
(Lund said in a footnote that the woman would like to reopen two tickets, including one with an outstanding forfeiture, in the interest of justice because Municipal Court suspended her license in error. The mistake led to two separate convictions of operating after suspension, resulting in $460 in forfeitures and reinstatement fees.)
The lack of recordings make appeals to Circuit Court extremely difficult, Lund said.
"In a municipal court record review, a circuit court is limited in their review of the record to determining whether the evidence supports the municipal court decision," she wrote. "The circuit court also has the right to review the municipal court’s interpretations of a statute or any other conclusions of law de novo. ... Neither of those things will generally be possible without a transcript, as oral requests and oral decisions are common and indigent defendants have no right to counsel."
Milwaukee Municipal Court's failure to record as required by law is not limited to the woman's cases, the petition says.
"Milwaukee Municipal Court has likely failed to record hundreds of hearings over the last three years," Lund wrote.
When the court fails to properly record a hearing, the court "makes a decision that is both irrevocable and unappealable. ... Once the unrecorded proceeding is over, it can never be recorded."
In a letter sent July 6, Wisconsin Justice Initiative called on Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and members of the Common Council to continue the Milwaukee Municipal Court Alternatives Program with JusticePoint and restore funding for the Municipal Court defense project staffed by Legal Action of Wisconsin.
The JusticePoint program assists low-income individuals facing municipal court forfeitures with satisfying community service obligations and finding needed treatment or other social services.
The legal defense project provides legal advice and attorney representation for low-income individuals facing municipal citations.
WJI's letter read as follows.
The city is set to collect millions of dollars in new sales tax revenue from people living in poverty while simultaneously stripping away basic legal services from those same impoverished residents.
The audacity of it is both pretty amazing and utterly appalling.
Poor people will pay more in taxes to support pensions for city employees but won’t have the help they need in Municipal Court. City officials are standing idly by while two judges terminate JusticePoint’s contract to run the Court Alternatives Services program that finds programs for defendants who need them and recommends alternative sentences, like community service, for those who cannot afford to pay forfeitures.
There will be something in place of JusticePoint, but it will definitely be something less — other organizations simply do not have the experience or resources that JusticePoint has.
The poor people who will pay more so city employees can be sure of their pensions also won’t have a lawyer to defend them in Municipal Court, either. The city did not renew funding for Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Municipal Court defense project, which provides legal representation for impoverished defendants who cannot adequately represent themselves.
These two moves mean poor people, besides shelling out more in taxes, will pay more in forfeitures and fees they should not face and cannot afford.
Whose version of justice is this?
The new taxes collected from poor people are sure to be far, far more than the $600,000 combined cost of the two Municipal Court programs being axed.
Some aldermen have said there is nothing they can do about Municipal Court’s JusticePoint contract, but that is not true. The Common Council itself can enter into a new contract with JusticePoint, save the alternatives program, and demand some sorely needed accountability from the court.
The Legal Action funding should be renewed (and increased) primarily as a simple matter of justice for defendants and to ensure the judges, who operate without scrutiny from the mayor’s office, the Common Council, or their supervisors in the Wisconsin Court System, adhere to the law when hearing cases and treat defendants fairly and with dignity.
The city clearly needs to raise revenue. But it is about to increase taxes on the poor while subjecting them to increased legal jeopardy, with all of its ramifications and collateral consequences.
Is this really the best that Milwaukee can do?
By Alexandria Staubach
Milwaukee Municipal Court has terminated a long-term court diversion program contract without identifying a successor or a plan for continuity of services.
JusticePoint facilitated the City of Milwaukee’s Municipal Court Alternatives Program (MCAP) for 40 years. MCAP staff provide information and recommendations to Milwaukee Municipal Court for alternatives to forfeitures and jail for those who are unable to pay or who need specialized services.
A May 15 termination letter calls JusticePoint’s discharge a “termination for convenience.” Questions immediately arose about what will happen to the program’s clients on July 12, the day after JusticePoint's contract ends, but those questions had to await the return of a court administrator who was out of the office.
“Milwaukee Municipal Court’s intervention/alternatives program will continue, just not with the current vendor,” Sheldyn Himle, chief court administrator for Milwaukee Municipal Court, told Wisconsin Justice Initiative on Tuesday.
WJI asked follow-up questions about whether the court has identified a new vendor, whether the court anticipates the vendor will be able to assume services on July 12, and what will occur in the interim if not.
The court did not answer these questions by the time of this blog post.
Municipal citations are often issued to people experiencing poverty, mental health crisis, disability, and substance abuse issues. Many are unhoused. Many have disabilities that make navigating the court system exceedingly difficult. From 2002 to 2022, JusticePoint provided services to 61,975 individuals, resulting in 146,202 hours of community service completed and 444,984 days of jail avoided for the community and taxpayers.
“I think it's important to remember that the fines levied against the clients we work with in this program were never going to be collected by the City in the first place,” said Ed Gordon, JusticePoint’s chief operating officer and co-founder, in an email to WJI. “These are not people of means choosing not to pay their fines. This isn't about a reduction of revenue to the city. In fact, it's quite the opposite — this program recognizes that those in our community who would never be able to pay their fines in the first place can be 'held accountable' for their actions by taking steps to improve their own situations. Success here, and we have four decades of data to support this, represents reducing future police and court involvement for these folks. This program saves taxpayer money and strives to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our city. That is what we're losing with the elimination of this program.”
In a June 8 letter to the Milwaukee Common Council and its Judiciary and Legislation Committee, former Milwaukee Municipal Judge Jim Gramling said he would like to see JusticePoint reinstated and its MCAP work continued. “They have provided excellent service to the City and its more disadvantaged citizens. Their staff has been competent and committed from my first day in court in 1986,” he wrote.
Gramling noted that many municipal court defendants “are part of disadvantaged groups within our community: the poor, those addicted to drugs and alcohol, those suffering from mental health issues.” He said it was essential to him when he was judge that the municipal justice system “reach(ed) out to them at every possible opportunity to prevent them from being ground up in that system. The MCAP was the vehicle for that.”
JusticePoint plans to continue to provide services through July 11. Unless the City or a new vendor provides similar services on July 12, disruption is likely for clients who have not and cannot complete community service by then, and some current clients will have no documentation for the court at their next hearing, according to JusticePoint.
“JusticePoint is deeply concerned about the future of clients that have traditionally had opportunities to receive alternatives to the municipal court process,” Nick Sayner, JusticePoint’s chief executive officer and co-founder, told WJI. “We work with the most vulnerable populations in the City who receive citations usually related to unresolved social service needs. Individuals who are experiencing housing insecurity, poverty, substance use, mental health issues, and trauma are currently offered treatment alternatives, referrals, and/or community service options. As of July 11th, those options will no longer be available, and all individuals who would have been eligible for alternatives will be expected to pay their fines or be sent to collections. This process is simply unnecessarily punitive and can place people into an unrelenting system of debt collection.”
WJI joined a coalition to save JusticePoint’s MCAP. The 24-member coalition includes legal and community organizations serving the most vulnerable populations in Milwaukee, often in tandem with JusticePoint’s services.
“Milwaukee Municipal Court has statutory and constitutional obligations to these defendants — JusticePoint helps the municipal court comply with the law,” wrote the coalition in a letter to Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and the Milwaukee Common Council. “It is shocking that Milwaukee Municipal Court would suddenly cancel the contract for such an invaluable program. The contract was canceled without cause and was described as a ‘termination for convenience’, with an effective date of July 11, 2023. The Court has provided no explanation for what is to happen to the hundreds of individuals currently being served by JusticePoint.”
Milwaukee Ald. Mark Borkowski has scheduled a hearing before the Common Council’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee Meeting on June 12 at 11:00 a.m. in room 301-B of Milwaukee City Hall.
The meeting is open to the public. The meeting agenda was recently amended to indicate the committee may also go into closed session at some point regarding the matter.
Justice department reminds state and local courts of constitutional obligations regarding fines and fees
The U.S. Department of Justice recently expressed concern about the unjust imposition of fines and fees by state and local courts in violation of the civil rights of those accused of crime, quasi-criminal ordinance violations, and civil infractions.
The DOJ stated that the imposition and enforcement of fines and fees on those who cannot afford them may cause escalating debt that “far too often traps individuals and their families in a cycle of poverty and punishment that can be nearly impossible to escape.”
The agency pointed to other “profound harm” that fines and fees may cause to those who cannot afford them: incarceration for nonpayment; extension of probation and parole; and loss of a driver’s license, employment, right to vote, or even a home. These negative effects often apply disproportionately to people of color and low-income communities, said the agency.
The agency also reminded judges and stakeholders to provide meaningful court access for those with limited English proficiency.
The DOJ discussed its concerns about fines and fees in a “Dear Colleague” letter issued April 20 to state and local judges and other justice-system stakeholders.
The DOJ reminded judges of several constitutional principles relating to fines and fees, including:
The agency recommended assessment of each individual before imposition of monetary penalties, as “fines and fees will affect individuals differently depending on their resources.”
Imposing fines and fees on youth is especially concerning and may be excessive and unreasonable, the DOJ said. Many minors “are too young to legally work, are of compulsory school age or full-time students, have great difficulty obtaining employment due to having a juvenile or criminal record, or simply do not yet have employable skills typically expected of adults.” Judges should presume that youth are unable to pay fines and fees, the DOJ said.
The DOJ urged judges and other justice-system stakeholders not to use fines and fees as a means to raise government revenue, divorced from the purpose of punishment.
The DOJ pointed to Supreme Court case law indicating that courts “have an affirmative duty to determine an individual’s ability to pay and whether any nonpayment was willful before imposing incarceration as a consequence,” even when a defendant does not raise the issue.
State and municipal courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for nonpayment, and should consider alternatives to other serious consequences such as drivers’ license suspensions as well, the DOJ said. As alternatives, the DOJ suggested penalty-free payment plans and amnesty periods during which warrants are canceled or fees waived.
The DOJ also suggested alternatives to fines and fees as sentences in the first place. Attendance at a traffic safety class or community service could replace the fines and fees, the DOJ said.
The agency recommended that courts and other justice-system officials assess whether their penalties for nonpayment of fines and fees disproportionately affect certain groups. The agency pointed in particular to the suspension of drivers’ licenses for failure to pay, which may disproportionately affect people of color.
The DOJ discussed statutory requirements for courts that receive federal funding to provide language assistance for limited English proficient (LEP) individuals regarding imposition and collection of fines and fees. “Such assistance includes, but is not limited to, ensuring that court users with LEP have competent interpreting and translation services during all related hearings, trials, and motions, provided at no cost,” the DOJ wrote.
The agency said its Office for Access to Justice would follow up with a guide including best-practice examples from states and municipalities, and its Office of Justice Programs would seek a provider for training assistance for jurisdictions wishing to examine their fines and fees policies and practices.
The DOJ defined “fines” as monetary punishments for infractions and “fees” as required payments that go toward activities unrelated to the conviction or punishment.
In the race for Hales Corners municipal judge, Ian J. Thomson is challenging incumbent Jennine Sonntag. Election Day is April 4.
Thomson, an attorney at Gray & Associates in New Berlin, received his law degree from Marquette University Law School. His resume is here.
Sonntag, an attorney and contract administration leader at GE Healthcare in Wauwatosa and Hales Corners municipal judge since 2011, received her law degree from Marquette University Law School. Her resume is here.
WJI asked each of the candidates to answer a series of questions. The questions asked are patterned after some of those on the job application Gov. Evers uses when he is considering judicial appointments. The answers are presented here as submitted, without editing or insertion of “(sic)” for errors.
Two candidates are vying for a seat on the Milwaukee Municipal Court bench. The election is April 4, 2023.
Candidate Lena Taylor is an attorney and elected state senator. Candidate Molly Gena is the managing attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin, a nonprofit law firm providing free legal services in civil cases to those who meet certain low-income requirements.
Gena (on the viewer's left) and Taylor (on the viewer's right) joined WJI in person on January 25 to introduce themselves and answer questions from attendees.
Notes: Taylor had a prior engagement that, when combined with snow that day, caused her to enter the event a few minutes after it started. The event was held as a luncheon at Riverfront Pizzeria in Milwaukee, hence the imperfect visual quality and some background noise at times.
Attorney Molly Gena and Attorney and Sen. Lena Taylor are running for the Milwaukee Municipal Court seat being vacated by Derek Mosley, who left the bench for a position at Marquette University Law School.
Election Day is Tuesday, April 4.
WJI asked each of the candidates to answer a series of questions. Taylor did not respond to the questionnaire. Gena responded, and her answers are printed here as submitted.
The questions are patterned after some of those on the job application Gov. Evers uses when he is considering judicial appointments.
Gena, managing attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin, received her law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her resume is here.
Taylor, a state senator, received her law degree from the Southern Illinois University School of Law, according to the State Bar of Wisconsin's online attorney directory.
The two candidates participated in a candidate forum held by Wisconsin Justice Initiative on January 25, 2023. Watch the video.
Why do you want to become a judge?
I am running for Milwaukee Municipal Judge because I have dedicated my career to public service, and I want to continue to serve Milwaukee as its next judge. I have been a civil legal aid attorney for over 15 years, providing free legal services to those who cannot afford an attorney in Milwaukee Municipal Court and all over Wisconsin. I have seen firsthand the barriers too many people face when seeking justice. I whole-heartedly believe that the judicial process needs to be easier for people to access and understand, and that judges, as stewards of the court, are responsible for promoting access and ensuring the court’s positive impact on the community as a whole.
Representing clients in the municipal court for over 15 years, I know how much impact the court has on people and the community. Although municipal court cases are not criminal cases, they still have serious consequences. They may show up on criminal background checks. They are often used to deny housing and employment. Most frequently, when someone misses the deadline to pay a fine, the municipal court automatically issues arrest warrants or driver’s license suspensions until they pay. The serious implications that these cases have on people’s lives deserve thoughtful and deliberate consideration.
I will not punish people simply because they cannot afford to pay tickets. People living in poverty should not face harsher consequences for the same violations as those who have the means to pay their fines. Instead, for those who cannot afford their tickets, I will look to alternatives like community service, affordable payment plans, fine reductions, and the tax refund intercept program. I would use these alternatives based on each individual situation. This will allow me to spend more time handling serious violations like the dangerous reckless driving that plagues Milwaukee streets. In those more serious traffic-safety cases, the behavior of the driver will drive the severity of the consequence rather than their financial circumstance.
I have been a champion for racial justice and racial equity throughout my entire career. Punishing people who cannot pay their tickets with warrants and driver’s license suspensions has disproportionately affected people of color. It has been shown to be an ineffective debt collection device that further harms our community. I would be intentional about addressing racial disparities and encourage the city attorneys, law enforcement officers, and others in the system to do the same.
Courts can hold people accountable without punishing them just for being poor. I will focus on reducing the court’s reliance on default judgments and punishments to adopt a more individualized approach to cases that considers the circumstances of each individual who comes before me. This means adjudicating cases in a timely manner and working on systemic changes to make the court more efficient, ensuring justice and fairness and accessibility while enhancing public safety. The court can ensure that violators of the law are held responsible, while also allowing them to work, support their family, and contribute to the community.
Name one of the best United States or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last thirty years and explain why you feel that way.
I think Bank of New York Mellon v. Shirley Carson (2015) was an excellent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that had significant ramifications for the City of Milwaukee. This case dealt with “zombie foreclosures” or abandoned properties that have been in foreclosure for a long time. The bank had obtained a judgment of foreclosure against a homeowner but then did not immediately sell the property, letting it languish for over 16 months. The house remained in Ms. Carson’s name, though she moved out when she thought she no longer owned it. The house was subsequently vandalized and in disarray. Ms. Carson received multiple building code violations and was ordered to pay about $1,800 in fines even though she was not living there. She learned she still owned the home when she received the tickets. She was an elderly widow, and she went to Legal Action of Wisconsin for help. They filed a motion to amend the judgment to find the home was abandoned and order the bank to sell the property. The circuit court denied the motion, and it was eventually appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that once a property is declared abandoned, the bank must follow through and sell the property within a reasonable amount of time.
The decision was important for homeowners, because “zombie foreclosures'' were common in Milwaukee. It also was important in preventing crime and blight in the city. The decision was applauded by city officials, including the mayor of Milwaukee. However, it also has major significance for me because I was fortunate to be able to watch my friend and colleague argue the case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Watching her argue one of our non-profit civil legal aid law firm’s cases and then win it was incredibly exciting and inspiring. While I am certainly biased, it was argued and written exceptionally well. It encouraged me to continue as a public interest law attorney. When I first started as a baby lawyer other lawyers in court would ask me what I do and where I work. When I told them that I was a civil legal aid lawyer, I would sometimes hear, “That’s nice, but when are you going to get a real job?” I did not settle for my job because I could not get a corporate firm job. This is the work that I went to law school to do. I believe that representation at a non-profit law firm is every bit as important, technically demanding, and fulfilling as any other practice, and our law firm’s work in this case was affirmation of that belief. The outstanding oral and written advocacy in this case resulted in a unanimous decision that reminded the legal community that civil legal aid attorneys are real lawyers too.
Name one of the worst United States or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last thirty years and explain why you feel that way.
The recent Supreme Court of the United States decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center continues to plague our country. It denies women their fundamental rights. I do not need to rehash the painful holding, ramifications, or completely wrong analysis, but it has been gut-wrenching to watch the clinics in Wisconsin have to stop providing essential medical services in response to such a flawed decision. While the opinion does not directly affect cases in Milwaukee Municipal Court, it is tragic and will cause women to lose their lives.
Describe your judicial philosophy.
My judicial philosophy centers around two principal concepts: access to justice and equal justice. The administration of justice is an unheralded, but critical role of any judge and in a people’s court like the municipal court, it is even more essential that it be handled with access to justice and equal justice in mind.
I believe that a judge should ensure and promote access to justice by being transparent and accountable, and by championing ideals like a right to counsel in civil cases as well as criminal. The court should be open to innovation and developing new initiatives to promote access, such as the community court programs, and willing to allow litigants to appear in court as walk-ins without scheduled appearances.
A municipal court judge should strive to ensure equal justice through every aspect of how they administer the law. That begins, at a base level, by treating everyone fairly and with dignity and respect, while still holding people accountable and protecting public safety. Furthermore, patience is critical. I understand that there may be some people in court who are facing trauma, mental illness, or homelessness and may not have the resources to navigate the legal system. It is imperative for judges to clearly and effectively communicate to ensure that they understand their rights, the consequences of municipal convictions, and the legal process. Equal justice can be further advanced by providing litigants with increased access to resources that can better their situation, helping to reduce recidivism and improving the odds of their court case ultimately bettering them individually and as part of the community.
Finally, I believe that municipal courts are not a fundraising apparatus and they are not debt collectors. The function of the municipal court is not to bring in revenue but to administer justice, and to adjudicate city ordinance violation cases.
Describe the two most significant cases in which you were involved as either an attorney or a judicial officer.
I sued the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) to help reinstate my client’s driver’s license that had been revoked for 14 years and fixed a flawed agency practice. His license was revoked after he defaulted on a court-ordered payment plan related to a minor accident. I negotiated with the attorney for the creditor to obtain another payment plan and lift the suspension so he could get to work. We submitted the payment plan to the DOT, but the DOT did not approve it because they had a rule at the time that drivers who defaulted on a court-ordered payment plan were never eligible for another payment plan. I sued the DOT on my client’s behalf in a Chapter 227 petition for judicial review in Milwaukee County Circuit Court and argued that the DOT’s decision was contrary to state law which clearly allowed for a second payment plan. Eventually, the Assistant Attorney General agreed that the DOT would reinstate my client’s driver’s license and promulgate an administrative rule on payment plans for these types of suspensions and give our law firm an opportunity to comment on the language of the rule prior to the public comment. We settled the circuit court case and I submitted written comments and testified about the proposed rule which directly cited my case. The DOT agreed with me and the rule stated they would start permitting an unlimited number of payment plans. This is significant for low-income drivers because at the time the suspensions for an unpaid damage judgment were 20 years long. Payment plans allow drivers to get their licenses back while making payments to the creditor.
In another case, I represented a client in attempting to lift their driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay minor traffic tickets in Milwaukee Municipal Court. She had to take two buses to get to work. The court had a policy that litigants could get one payment plan and if they defaulted, they had to pay 30% of the total amount of the tickets in order to lift the driver’s license suspensions. For my client, that was $118 that she did not have. I filed a motion for a payment plan citing the poverty protections in the statutes. The judge denied my motion and my motion to reconsider. I then filed an appeal in circuit court, a notable fact because only about 5% of defendants in the municipal court have attorneys and few appeals of municipal court decisions are filed. The circuit court judge agreed and held that because the municipal court judge did make a finding that she was unable to pay due to poverty (which they had to make because she was receiving food stamps), they acted contrary to the law which required them to lift her driver’s license suspensions. The case was reversed and remanded to the municipal court and we continued to file motions in municipal courts throughout the state to force judges to follow the law and the specific poverty protections within it.
Describe your legal experience as an advocate in criminal litigation, civil litigation, and administrative proceedings.
I do not have much criminal litigation experience. At the UW Law School, I participated in the Innocence Project and I worked on the Audrey Edmunds case in Dane County in which we filed a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. My professor argued the case, but I did draft the affidavits for our expert witnesses and collaborated on the strategy and arguments. I have also represented a couple of clients on criminal Operating After Revocation cases in assisting them with efforts to obtain their driver’s licenses.
I have much more civil litigation experience. I have represented clients in over 45 different municipal courts in the state and over 20 circuit courts. I have represented clients in traffic tickets, civil ordinances, and parking tickets in municipal courts. I have also defended clients in evictions, money judgment and consumer cases in both small and large claims. I have filed a few appeals. Most of my work has been motion practice, poverty hearings, evidentiary hearings and brief writing.
I have also represented clients in administrative proceedings in hearings in front of both the DOT and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee. I have appealed some of those decisions to circuit court as well.
Have you ever been convicted of a crime, either misdemeanor or felony? If so, explain. When did the incident(s) occur?
Have you ever been cited for a municipal offense? If so, explain. When did the incident(s) occur?
What are the greatest obstacles judges face when trying to deliver true justice? What can or should be done about them?
I think the biggest problem is that the system itself is not fair and accessible for everyone. There are systemic barriers in our justice system, especially for people of color, low-income families, and other marginalized communities.
Many people have a hard time understanding and using the legal system. This is especially true for people who are not fluent in English or who do not have enough money to hire a lawyer. Additionally, the bureaucracy involved in seeking justice can be overwhelming or difficult to navigate. And for many, the hours that courts typically operate conflict with working hours that they are not able or cannot afford to miss. Everyone deserves equal access to our justice system.
Overall, addressing the obstacles to justice requires a multifaceted and systemic approach, including addressing bias and discrimination, increasing access to justice, and addressing the underlying social and economic issues that contribute to inequality in the justice system.
If elected, I plan to take a number of actions to help remove some of these barriers to justice. I plan to minimize automatic judgments and defaults whenever possible, and consider all of the circumstances in the cases that come before me. Additionally, I will continue the court’s practice of holding court in the community and in the evenings.
For most of my career and practice in the Milwaukee Municipal Court, everyone had the ability to “walk-in” to the court to be heard. This means that they could come in without a scheduled time post-judgment to ask for a payment plan or community service. Milwaukee Municipal Court is one of only two full-time municipal courts in the state, and walk-ins are essential to make the court accessible and fair. However, that practice stopped in 2020 with the pandemic, and the court has not brought it back. Walk-in court is essential for a people’s court, so they can be heard and resolve their tickets quickly. The circuit court allows walk-ins on civil tickets, and that practice needs to be restored in the municipal court, and I plan on doing just that.
Finally, we are experiencing a reckless driving epidemic in the city that is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. However, instead of focusing on traffic safety, Milwaukee Municipal Court instead orders tens of thousands of driver’s license suspensions per year to collect debt. I would reserve driver's license suspensions for serious and harmful driving behavior so that the court, police, and DMV can focus their resources on safety violations. This would ensure that courts do more good than harm in our community. One of my top priorities as judge will be significantly reducing the time between when someone is issued a reckless driving ticket, and the time that they are in court to face potential penalties, so we can get the most dangerous drivers off the street and held accountable sooner. And in less serious cases, I would utilize evidence-based solutions and alternatives to fines and suspensions, like ordering drivers to attend traffic safety courses.
Provide any other information you feel would be helpful to potential voters deciding for whom to vote.
As I have said, I would discontinue certain debt collection tools/sanctions for failure to pay tickets, such as driver’s license suspensions or commitments to jail. I have seen through my 15 years representing countless clients in municipal court that these are ineffective at coercing payment and actually have the opposite effect. Suspending driver’s licenses and jailing people keeps them from being able to get to work, making it even less likely for them to be able to pay tickets. Municipalities spend more to jail defendants than what is collected in payments. Those who can pay do pay their tickets, and those that cannot just end up stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty if they lose their licenses or go to jail for not paying minor municipal tickets. I would increase the use of community service (which still holds people accountable and benefits the community), reasonable payment plans, and lower fines. Fines should be proportional to one’s ability to pay, and payment plans must also be reasonable for the individual litigant. Furthermore, the law requires courts to lift driver’s license suspensions and warrants for anyone that cannot pay due to poverty. The majority of those who do pay are statutorily unable to pay due to poverty because they are on public assistance such as W-2, SSI or food stamps or qualify for a public defender of civil legal attorney. It is a waste of court and law enforcement resources to suspend or issue warrants in the first place.
The overwhelming majority (75-80%) of cases in Milwaukee Municipal Court are default judgments. This means that the litigants, or people facing penalties, do not appear in court and a judgment is automatically entered against them. Most of the time an appearance is not required, and most litigants do not see the value in coming to court. These cases are automated in the system and once the judgment is entered, they are given 60 days to pay. I would review not only the tickets in which the litigants appear in court, but every single case. Before entering a default judgment, I would review the citations to ensure that the judgment is warranted under the circumstances.
Individual consideration of the cases and the underlying behavior on a case-by-case basis is not limited to traffic, but would be applied throughout my courtroom. As a result, my court would be able to hold slumlords accountable in a fashion like reckless drivers. I have had clients who own their houses and are on a fixed income and need help making repairs to their homes who are being punished more severely than slumlords because of their inability to pay the fines. I would give homeowners time to address those issues and provide them with resources to assist them with those repairs. And I would dismiss or reduce tickets once they have fixed the problems. I would consider raising fines for slumlords who own and rent out multiple properties with terrible living conditions where their tenants have no recourse.
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