"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 a direct quote from the judge's application.
Name: Mario D. White
Appointed to: Dane County Circuit Court
Appointment date: June 2, 2020 (elected April 2021)
Law School – University of Wisconsin
Undergraduate – Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma
High School – Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Recent legal employment:
March 2018-present -- Dane County Circuit Court commissioner
September 2008-present -- Adjunct faculty, University of Wisconsin Law School
June 2008-March 2018 -- Assistant state public defender, Wisconsin State Public Defender
General character of practice:
Circuit court commissioner, primarily for family, small claims matters, and criminal cases.
Earlier worked as an assistant state public defender representing indigent clients charged with misdemeanors and felonies, during initial appearances, bail hearings, trial and sentencing hearings. Also represented clients facing revocation of probation or extended supervision.
Describe typical clients:
Prior to becoming a commissioner, my practice area was criminal defense. As a public defender, all my clients were indigent. Many of my clients had difficulty reading or had limited education. Many struggled with substance abuse, mental health issues and homelessness. Some of my clients did not believe they would be treated fairly by the court system.
I had many clients who were in jail or in prison. I would regularly go to the jail to meet with those clients to give them updates on their case or just talk with them about things. Sometimes they became frustrated, which required me to use the patience and listening skills I developed as a teacher. Remaining calm under pressure, being patient, and listening were things I did in order to help foster a healthy attorney-client relationship. These are critical skills that I have honed over my years of practice.
As a circuit court commissioner, I do not represent clients. However, I have become knowledgeable in areas of civil practice. I routinely preside over small claims matters, which cover a wide range of civil law, from contract dispute to torts. Many of the litigants in small claims are unrepresented and lack familiarity with the legal system. I have become skilled at explaining the legal basis for my decisions.
Number of cases tried to verdict: Approximately 30
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:
State of Wisconsin vs. Tyrone Flood
I represented Mr. Flood, an Army vet who struggled with homelessness, who was charged with False Imprisonment, Strangulation and Battery. His female friend alleged that he assaulted her late one night when they were staying in an abandoned house. Mr. Flood maintained his innocence, stating that she had been assaulted by other people. The complainant went to the hospital for examination and DNA was collected from her neck area. Male DNA was detected, but none of it was Mr. Flood's. Despite this, the case went to trial. The complainant testified that Mr. Flood assaulted her. He testified that did not. In the end, the jury acquitted Mr. Flood of all three charges. This was a significant case because it illustrates the power that an accusation can have on someone. Mr. Flood spent months in jail waiting for this trial. The initial complaint was filed January 5, 2015. He was. released from jail on April 6, 2015 and he was acquitted August 19, 2015.
State of Wisconsin vs. Bobby Eleby
Trial date: May 23, 2017
Mr Eleby was charged with 13 different offenses: 3 counts of Strangulation, 5 counts of Battery, 2 counts of Felony Bail Jumping, 2 counts of Disorderly Conduct and one count of False Imprisonment. It was alleged that on two separate days he assaulted his girlfriend. The case required extensive investigation on my part. Mr. Eleby was convicted of 6 of the 13 counts. The case was significant because there was a great deal of investigation and advocacy involved. The jury heard evidence that Mr. Eleby assaulted the same woman on two different days. My fear was that the jury would convict on all counts simply because of the number of allegations. Instead, the jury listened carefully and believed only one of the assaults took place.
State of Wisconsin vs. Victor Spidell
Mr. Spidell had several cases filed against him related to his struggles with addiction. He was a young college freshman who had a great deal of potential. Because he was deemed 'low-risk' for drug use, he did not qualify for the drug court program. Since he had a prior conviction, he could participate in the deferred prosecution program through the DA's office. Our only option was to proceed with probation. Sadly, this case took a tragic turn when he overdosed and died in May of 2017. This case continues to haunt me. It illustrates the shortcomings in the criminal justice system's handling of addiction.
Experience in adversary proceedings before administrative bodies:
As a public defender I regularly represented people facing probation or extended
supervision revocation. These hearings were conducted in the Dane County Jail before an administrative law judge… If the client was facing revocation because of alleged criminal conduct, the hearings gave us an opportunity to test some the evidence and gain useful information.
Position or involvement in judicial, non-partisan, or partisan political campaign, committee, or organization:
Volunteer: Lanford for Judge
Volunteer: Berz for Judge
Volunteer: Fair Wisconsin
Previous runs for public office: None listed
All judicial or non-partisan candidates endorsed in the last ten years:
Judge Ellen Berz, Dane County Circuit Court judge, 2012
Judge Rhonda Lanford, Dane County Circuit Court judge, 2013
Professional or civic and charitable organizations:
Out Professional Engagement Network, 2009-Present
Dane County Bar Association, 2013-present. Co-chair, Criminal Law Section, 2013-2015
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 2016-2019
Significant pro bono legal work or volunteer service:
Helping to train lawyers has been the most significant pro bono work I have done…. My love of teaching and my strong desire to improve legal practice drive me to continue to train and mentor young lawyers. In many of these training programs. the participants work on their own cases. We are able to formulate trial strategies, including theories of defense, develop avenues for more investigation and examine potential weaknesses in their case. Participants leave the program with a better understanding of their case, which has resulted in acquittals or a reduction in charges for their clients….
Why I want to be a judge —
Throughout my career, I have been an advocate and an educator. From classrooms in Texas to courtrooms in Wisconsin, I have strived to improve the lives of those I encounter. As an attorney and court commissioner, I have seen the enormous influence judges can have on an individual and on society. I want to be a judge so that I can bring my passion for equal justice and education to the bench.
During my years as a public defender, I had many clients who felt the system was biased against them because of their race. Like me, many of my clients were African-American. Generally, they were arrested by a white police officer, charged by a white prosecutor, tried before a white jury and sentenced by a white judge. The best tool I had to convince them they could be treated fairly was to be a strong advocate for them. To that end, I challenged prosecutors to prove their case, implored judges to see the client’s humanity, and worked to convince juries of my client’s innocence. In addition to being my client’s advocate, I was also their teacher. I counseled them on the best ways to present themselves before a judge and jury. I explained the reasons for our defense strategy. In order for them to begin to feel the system would treat them fairly, they had to see someone stand up for them and had to understand as much as possible.
When I became a commissioner my responsibilities shifted. I became entrusted with the duty to ensure both sides of a case are treated fairly. Many of the people who appear before me do not have lawyers. They are regular people trying to live as best they can. They come to court because something bad has happened to them. For many, it is the first time they have been in a courtroom. I am responsible for making sure they understand the process. When litigants understand the process, they are more likely to feel they were treated fairly. I begin each of my hearings by explaining court procedure. During the hearing, I listen patiently to both sides. I restate my understanding of their issues so that they are able to clarify any misunderstandings. I do these things with the hope that when parties leave the courtroom they feel as though they were heard.
My background as a high school teacher, my experiences with marginalized people and my passion for justice are the tools I will bring to the Dane County bench. I have spent my career helping those involved in the legal system. I want to continue to that as a judge. Judges have an enormous impact on the legal system. I am eager add my perspective to the effort to ensure equal justice for all.
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.
Like many LGBT Wisconsinites, I was elated when in 2015 Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples could not be denied the right to marry. The decision in Obergefell v. Hodges continues to have a profound impact on Wisconsinites in general and on me in particular. The decision provided a level of certainty for committed same-sex couples and also served to acknowledge the validity of our relationships.
I moved to Wisconsin in 2005 in the midst of a fierce campaign on same-sex marriage. Voters were set to decide on a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Volunteering with Fair Wisconsin, my friends and I walked door-to-door talking with people about the amendment. Some people welcomed me with smiles, words of encouragement and monetary donations. Others greeted me with slammed doors and proclamations such as “I wouldn’t support gay marriage if Jesus Christ himself said it was OK.”
As the months progressed, we continued to proclaim, “A Fair Wisconsin Votes No!” When the final votes were tallied, Wisconsin approved the amendment. My ability to enter into a legally recognized marriage was foreclosed by a slight majority of Wisconsin voters. The message I took from that referendum was that my life and my relationship were not equal to others.
The issue of same-sex marriage landed in the U.S. Supreme Court when the justices heard the Obergefell case. James Obergefell and John Arthur, who had been in a 20-year committed relationship, decided to marry after Mr. Arthur was diagnosed with ALS. The two flew from Ohio to Maryland in order to get married. Three months later, Mr. Arthur died. Despite being legally married in Maryland, the state of Ohio did not acknowledge Mr. Obergefell as Mr. Arthur’s surviving spouse. That couple, along with countless others across Wisconsin and the United States lived in uncertainty. Couples moving from a state that recognized their marriage to one that did not created unpredictability. The decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges gave hope to many Wisconsinites.
The Obergefell decision represents an important step toward equality for all, but, by no means is the matter settled. Members of the LGBT community continue to face scorn and ridicule for living their authentic lives. Courts are now beginning to deal with the interaction between religious exercise and same-sex marriage. Despite these impending legal battles, it is undeniable that the words in the Obergefell decision clearly demonstrate that the highest court in the land values same-sex relationships. The Obergefell decision removed one obstacle on the path to “liberty and justice for all.”
Two or three judges whom I admire and why:
In the final months of my third year of law school, I attended an event at which then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson spoke. After her presentation, she asked the audience for questions. I timidly raised my hand and asked if she would comment on media reports of partisan divide between some of the justices. Her response addressed the significance of an independent judiciary and the importance of people having faith in the judicial system.
During her term on the Court, Justice Abrahamson worked to make courts more accessible to the public. Access to the courts is the first step in having access to justice. Justice Abrahamson’s work in that area helped to inspire people to enter the legal profession. I recall watching an oral argument before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. At the end of the session, then-Chief Justice Abrahamson engaged with some high school students sitting in the gallery. I watched as she explained the role of trial and appellate courts, and the obligations lawyers have to their clients. The impact she had on those students is immeasurable.
Judge Everett Mitchell is another judge whom I admire. I first met him in 2009. He was in law school and was competing for a spot on the UW Law School Mock Trial team. As a coach for the team, I watched his try-out. To say he had an oratorical gift is a tremendous understatement. He made the team and I had the pleasure of coaching him in competition. His passion, attention to detail, and rhetorical flair made him an excellent mock trial student.
Our paths crossed again when he served as an intern in the Madison public defender office, where I worked. He had a way of connecting with his clients that made him an excellent advocate. He then became an assistant district attorney for Dane County. I quickly learned that the passion he felt for justice remained with him when he moved to the prosecutor’s office. One my clients was accused of a violent crime. During the course of my representation, evidence demonstrating that the alleged victim at lied to police emerged. As the prosecutor, Everett could have concluded the evidence was unreliable – the product of reluctance or a mistake on the accuser’s part, or intimidation by my client. Instead, decided to dismiss the case. He understood that justice demanded dismissal rather than conviction.
Presiding over juvenile cases and with an eye always turned toward justice, Judge Mitchell continues to serve the people. In an unprecedented move, he insisted that in-custody juvenile defendants appearing in his court no longer wear shackles. Having had to prepare parents for the prospect of seeing their child led out in shackles, I understand the gravity of removing those shackles.
Judge Mitchell is role model for young African-Americans. Being active in the community, he reminds people that he is their reflection; he is who they can become. The compassion and dedication he shows to those who appear before him embody the best traits of a judge.
The proper role of a judge:
Judges are the conduits through which abstract ideas of justice and equality materialize into concrete form. Judges carry the responsibility of deciding cases impacting people’s financial, property, and liberty interests. To exercise that duty, a judge must impartially apply the law to the facts of a given case and reach a well-reasoned decision. When those decisions call upon the use of judicial discretion, a judge should be mindful of the direct and collateral consequences the parties might face.
It is said that judges are like umpires—they merely call “balls and strikes.” While there is some appeal to this description, judicial decisions are more nuanced than that. In the context of a civil case, a judge may serve as a fact-finder. This process may require a judge tot assess a witness’s credibility, decide the weight to accord evidence, and make other decisions that are far more complicated than calling “balls and strikes.” In a criminal case, a judge may be deciding whether to take someone’s liberty. Reaching these decisions requires a judge to impartially apply the law and to exercise sound discretion. A judge should be mindful that decisions have tangible consequences. That is not to suggest a judge should reach a decision with an outcome in mind; but rather, a judge must recognize that decisions do not exist in a vacuum.
This is evident in the context of criminal cases. Criminal justice reform has grown as people become more aware of the high numbers of incarcerated individuals. As of February 2020, Wisconsin had approximately 23,000 people incarcerated in prison compared to just over 9,000 in Minnesota. Given that the states have roughly equal population and crime rate, one wonders why Wisconsin has more people in prison. For the majority of felony crimes the judge decides whether or not to sentence someone to prison. Exercising judicial discretion in that area means understanding that prison is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Judges decide issues that affect people. When deciding cases, a judge must be conscientious and compassionate. Being conscientious involves understanding the legal principles at bar and carefully listening to the parties. Compassion comes from appreciating that a judicial decision is more than just words on a page. It means understanding that the parties involved will have to adjust their lives in some manner once they leave the courthouse. A judge who is both conscientious and compassionate best serves the interests of justice and the citizens of Wisconsin.
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