"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. WJI also will continue to profile former Gov. Scott Walker's appointees who are still in office
Name: Larisa V. Benitez-Morgan
Appointed to: Kenosha County Circuit Court
Appointment date: Feb. 12, 2020 (She is up for election in April 2021)
Law School – University of Illinois-Chicago John Marshall Law School
Undergraduate – College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA
High School – Frank W. Cox High School, Virginia Beach, VA
Recent legal employment:
2008-present – Assistant state public defender, Kenosha County
Bar and Administrative Memberships:
Wisconsin State Bar Association
Illinois Bar (former member)
General character of practice before becoming a judge: Handled a wide variety of cases, including criminal, delinquency, and civil matters. Criminal cases ranged from misdemeanors to homicides; also represented clients in revocation of community supervision proceedings. Juvenile cases ranged from minor to serious offenses. Also represented clients in civil cases such as termination of parental rights, child in need of protection or services (CHIPS), juvenile in need of protection or services, mental health matters, and protective placement (Ch. 55) matters.
Earlier private practice included contract disputes, divorce, child custody placement, real estate transactions, and copyright and trademark matters.
Describe typical clients: Those who have been accused of a crime as an adult or juvenile, or are subject to mental commitment or protective placement, or are parents in a terminiation-of-parental rights proceeding.
Number of cases tried to verdict or judgment: Five jury trials, 51 court trials.
Describe up to three significant trials, appeals, or other legal matters in which you participated as a judge or lawyer in the past seven years:
As a criminal defense attorney, my role is not only to advocate for my client, but to ensure that the laws of the U.S. and Wisconsin as well as the Constitutional protections afforded all have been followed. In 2015, it was becoming increasingly difficult to zealously advocate for my clients within time limits in CH. 51 matters. Extension hearings were set on the court calendar for one contested hearing with very little time for discovery, let alone the retaining of an expert, and an independent medical examination. The time alloted for this hearing was hardly sufficient to allow for testimony from expert and lay witnesses. Often these hearings would extend well beyond the court's alloted time on their calendar resulting in considerable backup for that court. I filed numerous motions before the court regarding lack of compliance from corporation council (sic) in regards to discovery, and the inability to conduct independent
evaluations prior to the hearing. The court ultimately ruled in my favor, and in working together (the court, corporation council (sic), defense council (sic) we were able to change the process of how we handle extension hearings for mental commitments....
I was also instrumental with one of our juvenile judges in setting up the juvenile court team. This team is represented by the stakeholders in the area of juvenile law...and meets monthly to try and resolve any issues we are seeing in how our juvenile court is operating. This group has been highly effective in that it allows everyone to see the constraints each stake holder is operating with and to develop resolutions to address concerns. As an extension of this juvenile group I was asked to participate in the Casey Foundation Judicial project. It is through the work with the Casey Foundation and our child court improvement team, that we were able to reduce the number of children placed out of home and increase the number of children that were able to be safely returned to home. Much of the success we have had in the area of CHIPS cases has been a direct result of helping the parent through the CHIPS proceedings and in meeting their conditions of return. Kenosha is one of the jurisdictions for the Pilot CHIPS program. It is the expectation that if parents have representation throughout a CHIPS action we can reduce the length of time children are placed out of home and thus, the number of children subject to a TPR proceeding.
Lastly, I am currently co-council (sic) for a young lady (Chrystul Kizer) who stands accused of a first-degree intentional homicide (of Randall Volar III), arson, OMVOC (operating a motor vehicle without the owner's consent), possession of a firearm by a felon and felony bail jumping. Despite the statue being law since 2007, the affirmative defense in this case is one of first impression in Wisconsin. (The brief asserted that the crime resulted from the defendant being trafficked for sex by the man she killed.) It is our position that our client should be entitled to use this defense. Thus far, the statutory meaning of the statute and proposed jury instructions have been submitted to the court as well as reply briefs. The issue has been argued before the court and the court's oral ruling is expected on December 9, 2019. I have selected both of these briefs as well as the proposed jury instructions as my two writing samples.
(Kenosha County Circuit Judge David Wilk limited Kizer's ability to use the defense and said it could not be used for the homicide charge. The matter is under appeal.)
Experience in adversary proceedings before administrative bodies: Handled 68 administrative proceedings related to revocation proceedings. NA
Previous runs for political office: Position or involvement in judicial, non-partisan, or partisan political campaign, committee, or organization: N/A
Position or involvement in judicial, non-partisan, or partisan political campaign, committee, or organization: NA
All judicial or non-partisan candidates endorsed in the last six years: N/A
Professional or civic and charitable organizations:
GALLA, vice president, 2003-2005
Chicago Bar Association, 2006-2014
Illinois State Bar Association, 2006-2014
Illinois Real Estate Association, 2006-2014
American Bar Association, 2006-2014
Wisconsin State Bar Association, 2006-present
Elected or appointed public offices: N/A
Significant pro bono legal work or volunteer service: Not allowed to take clients outside of job. Speaks at local schools for career day and parent occupation day. Volunteered for several work-related groups and committees.
Involvement in business interests: N/A
Other: Fluent in Spanish; filed for bankruptcy in 2008 due to medical debt.
Why I want to be a judge – I believe our laws exist to serve everyone, and that the legal profession and bench should be more reflective of the community in which they serve. While there are an increasing number of females and people of color who are becoming attorneys; myself, many of my peers, as well as members of the community would like to see a more diverse bench. A bench which is reflective of the diversity of Kenosha's population: Whites, Hispanics, African American, Bi-Racial, and LGBTQ individuals.
My love for the law and what it represents for all citizens also fuels my desire to be a judge. It is this love and respect for the law that keeps me wanting to learn more and strive for improvement. It is this passion for the justice system that allows me to see issues from a variety of perspectives, analyze and apply to the law to the facts of a given case. It is what drives me daily to give each of my clients the best legal representation I can. Becoming a judge will provide me with the opportunity to continue to serve my community, promote justice and to protect the law....
I believe the citizens of Kenosha are best served by a judge who possesses a thorough understanding of not just the courtroom and the law, but the day to day life of workers, mothers, educators, and all citizens. I possess the legal experience, educational background, work experience, and life experience, to be a capable, tenacious, well rounded and empathetic judge. This is my calling; a vocation for which I am as passionate as I will be dedicated.
Describe which case in the past 25 years by the Wisconsin Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court you believe had significant positive or negative impact on the people of Wisconsin.
As an attorney who routinely handles mental health cases, In the Matter of the Mental Commitment of Michael H....(2014), is one of the best opinions I have recently read. Prior to this decision, it was quite common as a defense attorney to argue the third element (dangerousness) for an involuntary commitment because prior to this case, the statutory term "threat" had not been defined within the mental health context or statute.
One option to find dangerousness is for the trier of fact to find that dangerousness exists because the subject evidences substantial physical harm to self by "recent threats of or attempts at suicide." §51.20(1)(a)2.a. Wis. Stats. The Court looked at the common meaning of the word "threat" and found that the common meanings were "an expression of an intention to inflict injury and an indication of impending danger or harm."...The Court also reviewed mental health scholarship regarding the term "suicidal," and recognized that "suicidal" is used both by persons who intend to act and persons who do not....The court found that for the purposes of the statute the subject's acts did meet the term's common meaning, an articulated plan is not a necessary component of a suicide threat....
The most striking parts of this decision were the analysis and manner in which the Court came to is conclusion. This case exemplifies the traditional "issue, rule of law, analysis, and conclusion" style with which we, as attorneys, are so familiar. Rather than "write into" the statute that an articulated plan was a necessary component of a suicide threat, the Court applied the law as written and declined to extend the law further. This analysis and conclusion shows both common sense and judicial constraint because to say one had to articulate a plan before obtaining treatment would write into the statute a "barrier" to the very treatment the legislature had intended....
"I believe our laws exist to serve everyone, and that the legal profession and bench should be more reflective of the community in which they serve." – Kenosha County Circuit Judge Larisa V. Benitez-Morgan
Identify two or three judges or justices whom you admire and explain why.
There are many judges and justices that I admire and respect. The two that have had the greatest impact on the creation of my beliefs of what a judge should be are Justice (Shirley) Abrahamson and Judge (David) Bastianelli. Former Justice Abrahamson has worked tirelessly for the advancement of opportunities for women in the legal profession. She inspired so many people through her life experiences, teaching, lectures, and opinions to continue trying to make the legal system accessible and equal to everyone. As Wisconsin's first woman Supreme Court Justice, first woman Chief Justice, and Wisconsin's longest-serving Supreme Court Justice she has been an inspiration for those not only wanting to be attorneys but those who dare dream to one day sit on the bench. While there may be some who consider her to have been controversial, I do not believe anyone can find fault in her work ethic, intellect, meticulous research, analysis, and writing skills.
I have most come to admire Judge David Bastianelli. I have been practicing before Judge Bastianelli and the other Kenosha Circuit Court Judges since my admission to the Wisconsin bar. I have found Judge Bastianelli to exemplify everything I would want to be as a judge. He is always on time, prepared for every hearing, respectful to everyone who enters his courtroom be it staff, jurors, alleged victims, defendants, court officers, and observers in the gallery. He does not pontificate from the bench, or express/demonstrate personal bias. He interprets and applies the law of Wisconsin and never attempts to create it..... In rendering his decisions, it is clear that he has reviewed everything before him, and he is applying through sound reasoning, the applicable law.....The most striking thing about Judge Bastianelli is his lack of ego. It is not about him; it is about the law. When he has made an error, he will not only address it, but will put it on the record. I am deeply saddened at his retiring; he will definitely be missed and is leaving big shoes to fill. If selected, I will endeavor each day to be what he has shown me a judge should be.
Describe the proper role of a judge.
Judicial constraint, reflection, impartiality, sound judgment, and calm demeanor are the hallmarks of an effective judge. The role of a circuit court judge is to apply the law, not to create the law. A judge has the responsibility to understand the meaning of statutes, the pertinent case law, using all common sense and reason, to interpret the law, to consider the legal arguments of counsel, and to render a sound and meaningful judgment within the constraints of the law. What matters is what the evidence before the court shows and how the law of Wisconsin is applied.
The bench is not a place for personal agenda, for bias, influence or inconsistency. It is not a soapbox or sounding board; it is not a license for mercurial judgment or overt displays of power. It is a seat of extreme honor, and of service to the people of Kenosha....
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