Evers' judges: Michael D. Zell
"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: Judge Michael Zell
Appointed to: Portage County Circuit Court
Appointment date: June 24, 2022
Law School – University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin
Graduate School – University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Undergraduate – University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
High School – Slinger High School, Slinger, Wisconsin
Recent legal employment:
April 2021-present – Assistant state public defender, Wisconsin
December 2018-April 2021 and April 2017-April 2018 – Assistant district attorney, Portage County
April 2018-December 2018 – Assistant district attorney, Marathon County
January 2015-April 2017 – Assistant district attorney, Wood County
2002-2015 – Owner, Zell Law Office LLC
Bar and Administrative Memberships:
State Bar of Wisconsin
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin
General character of practice:
I began my career as an assistant public defender in Racine WI. I left that position after three years and worked for an OWI firm in Milwaukee for a little more than one year. I then ran Zell Law Office LLC for 13 years. I represented individuals in a variety of matters. Due to the rising costs of health insurance, in 2015 my spouse and I decided that I would seek employment with the State of Wisconsin. I worked as an assistant district attorney for approximately six years. I worked in several different offices due to family reasons and greater opportunities. After six years of that work I decided that I wanted to work with clients, and joined the public defender's office.
Describe typical clients:
As a public defender, my current clients are indigent criminal defendants. When I was running Zell Law Office, much of my practice was family law and guardian ad litem work, as well as child welfare (CHIPS and TPR), and criminal appeals. When I perceived a need in bankruptcy in the Stevens Point area I began accepting clients for this purpose and filed quite a few bankruptcy petitions, mostly chapter 7. My solo practice also included some small estate planning and other civil litigation.
Number of cases tried to verdict: Dozens. I have not kept count.
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:
Experience in adversary proceedings before administrative bodies:
I have worked on a significant number of probation revocation hearings, including by filing administrative appeals of revocation decisions. I also have filed a significant number of bankruptcy cases, which are not technically administrative, but proceed in a similar fashion.
Describe your non-litigation experience (e.g., arbitration, mediation).
I have some experience with mediation. While operating Zell Law Office, a significant portion of my practice was divorce and family law. Many of those cases used mediators to resolve issues about child custody and placement. I also worked on cases as guardian ad litem for children. Though not characterized as mediation, the guardian ad litem in a divorce often attempts to broker a resolution between the parents and their attorneys.
Position or involvement in judicial, non-partisan, or partisan political campaign, committee, or organization: None
Previous runs for public office: None
All judicial or non-partisan candidates endorsed in the last ten years:
Steven Sawyer, Portage County judge, 2022
Rick Cveykus, Marathon County judge, 2022
Professional or civic and charitable organizations:
Portage County Bar Association, 2009 to present
Significant pro bono legal work or volunteer service:
Why I want to be a judge -- I have always loved the practice of law. As a young attorney the thrill of litigation was enough to propel me through the days in court, and the nights and weekends at the Marquette Law Library. I spent a lot of time in my first few years with Wayne LaFave’s Search and Seizure Treatise and Blinka’s Wisconsin Practice Series evidence manual. I was fascinated by all of it and spent a lot of time learning how it all worked. I was driven to be the smartest attorney in the courthouse, and tried cases and filed creative motions with this as my goal. I struck out on my own in 2003 because I was motivated to be the kind of lawyer that everyone wanted to hire, the smartest and best.
But after twenty-four years of successes and failures, I realize that the most important part of my career has been the relationships with other people. At the core of practicing law, and everything else, is the beauty of humanity. We are a great mass of fragile and flawed beings who have an intense need to connect with each other in meaningful ways. I thrive on these connections. I am glad that other lawyers perceive me as smart and capable. But I am much prouder to be approachable and likable, and to have clients tell me I have helped them. In the past year I’ve had several public defender clients tell me that I’m the best lawyer they’ve ever had. This is not because of my intellect or sharp wit. I recognize the spark of life in everyone, and I use my bedside manner along with competence and diligence to make the best arguments I can for them.
When a Portage County judge suggested I run for election in 2011, I laughed it off. But since that time, this seed has grown. I have carefully observed the local judges in Portage, Wood and Marathon Counties. Ultimately I came to realize that they are all very different people who have the job for different reasons. Their motivations for doing the work are all different. But the most noticeable difference is between those judges who respect the humanity of the people in their courtroom, and those who do not.
I want to serve as a circuit court judge because I am the best candidate to meet the needs of the people of Portage County. I have the broadest and deepest experience, and the intelligence to process any legal issue. But more importantly, I will treat the people in my courtroom with the dignity and respect they deserve, even if they have done something wrong. I will study not just the problem, but the people, in order to reach a fair and just result.
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.
It is tempting to identify Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) as the most important US Supreme Court case in the past 25 years due to my own personal and family implications. This decision recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry. This is an important landmark in our society. Despite the decision there are still significant challenges to people who are LBGTQ. This is a good start at recognizing an important freedom.
That being said, the most tangible problem in the United States in 2022 is our division into partisan tribes. Hyper-partisanship has brought government to a standstill, as positioning has become more important than solutions. When I was a teenager and young adult, politicians from both sides would negotiate and compromise to solve the big problems. That social cohesion has deteriorated, and we now seem more like two countries than one.
I read widely about this phenomenon and study history to try to understand how we got to this point. There are no easy answers. But certain things stand out as factors in the development of this problem. One is the change in the media system from one that was at least ostensibly neutral to one which openly stokes partisanship. Another is the development of social media, which allows for the easy spread of misinformation. Third is the unlimited spending by corporations and special interest groups on elections. Some call this the dark-money problem. The problem was created by the Citizens United decision in 2010, and I’d select this as the most significant supreme court case in recent history.
The Supreme Court agreed with a conservative non-profit and determined that corporations and other outside groups can spend unlimited money on elections. The Court reasoned that limiting independent political spending by these groups violates first amendment rights to free speech. This overturned election spending restrictions which dated back more than 100 years, and which were intended to prevent corruption in our electoral system.
This ruling has changed our electoral system dramatically by allowing those with money to control the messaging. Super PACs and dark money now empower the wealthiest members of our society to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, meaning more and more partisan messaging.
Though we made it through the last presidential election without democracy failing completely, there continues to be an effort to limit the rights of citizens to vote. In combination with unimagined or unintended consequences of Citizens United, our expectations about the good life are in peril. Democracy itself appears to be in danger, and hyper-partisan bickering has prevented us from addressing the most important problems of our lifetime, such as climate change.
Two or three judges whom I admire and why:
The judge who has inspired me most has been Thomas Flugaur. I’ve appeared before many judges, and have developed friendly relationships with some. What I’ve learned is that judges are people, not deities or superhuman. All people are unique. I’ve seen judges screaming at lawyers or parties in the case. This lack of decorum really bothered me when I was a new lawyer. I’ve learned that the most important quality of a judge is temperament. This seems to be grounded in an appreciation for the humanity of every person.
Judge Flugaur is one of the smartest judges I’ve met. I’ve gone to his courtroom many times thinking I had the right answer, only to be surprised Judge Flugaur found something I did not. But Judge Flugaur is not known for his intelligence or his legal skills, though they are great. He is known for the way he engages with the lawyers and the parties in his courtroom.
For example, I loved to watch Judge Flugaur conduct indigency hearings in his courtroom. These are short hearings for a potentially indigent defendant to obtain a county-appointed lawyer when the public defender finds the person ineligible. Judge Flugaur called each defendant to the stand and talked about their life and financial circumstances. It was clear he thoroughly enjoyed these conversations, and generally the feeling was mutual. This is just one example of the kindness and empathy he showed people in his courtroom.
I also have learned a great deal from former Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Justice Abrahamson was a truly remarkable person. Reading her biographical page on the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s former justices page is humbling. She achieved so much in her lifetime. She was appointed in 1976 as the first female justice, and served until 2019, which is over forty years on the Court. Her achievements and awards during that time are too many to list.
Justice Abrahamson had a significant impact on me as a lawyer. As a young criminal-defense lawyer living in Milwaukee, I spent a lot of time in the Marquette Law Library reading appellate decisions. I learned more about many issues by reading her prolific dissents than by reading the majority opinions.
It is reported that Justice Abrahamson and Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg were close friends. During a ceremony honoring Justice Abrahamson in Madison in 2020, a video tribute from Justice Ginsburg was broadcast. Justice Ginsburg described Justice Abrahamson as the most “courageous and sage, the least self-regarding” of justices. She also pointed out that Justice Abrahamson inspired many young women to enter the profession. Most importantly, Justice Abrahamson never forgot Dr. Seuss’ “gentle maxim: ‘a person’s a person no matter how small.’”
The proper role of a judge:
The most basic role of a circuit court judge is to make decisions about disputed matters. The “proper” way to do this is in accordance with established principles of judicial conduct. The preamble in SCR 60 explains the importance of the role of a judge:
"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. Intrinsic to all provisions of this Code are the precepts that judges, 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."
The principles necessary to meet this goal are extensively outlined in SCR 60, the Code of Judicial Conduct. That being said, there are a few simple concepts which form the bedrock of these rules.
Judges must be diligent and competent, studying the cases and the law to reach the right result. Judges must have integrity in their personal and professional lives, showing the community that they strive to live a good life, honoring the law and others. Judges must show impartiality in their reasoning and decisions, and should not allow their words or conduct to imply that their decisions are based in favor or bias.
Judges cannot allow partisanship, nor the appearance of partisanship, to guide their decisions. Particularly in the United States in 2022, Judges must show that the judicial branch is independent of the other branches of government. The law is an objective tool to govern a society, and judges must show that they are able to apply the law free from the bias of partisanship.
Judges must ensure that the courtroom is orderly and decorum is maintained. The courtroom is a place where all participants must have an opportunity to address the court in an orderly and controlled manner. Judges must ensure that the participants have the opportunity to address the court.
Though not stated in SCR 60, Judges must strive to be patient, dignified and courteous in performing their duties and managing the participants in the courtroom.
When making decisions, judges must be firm but respectful. Participants are more likely to accept a judge’s decisions when they are delivered in a respectful manner.
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