"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: Michael S. Kenitz
Appointed to: Washington County Circuit Court
Appointment date: March 4, 2022
Law School – Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Undergraduate – Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
High School – Hartford Union, Hartford, Wisconsin
Recent legal employment:
September 2006-present – Kenitz Law Office, LLC, Hartford, Wisconsin
Bar and administrative memberships:
U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin
General character of practice:
I opened my own law practice directly out of law school in my hometown of Hartford, Wisconsin after I graduated from Marquette Law School in 2006. I have been a solo practitioner in that capacity ever since. Most cases that I handle involve the representation of individuals or small businesses and given the nature of my practice and "small town" atmosphere, there is typically a very direct relationship between myself and my clients.
Describe typical clients:
My clients are most often individuals or small businesses that reside or are located in Hartford or the surrounding areas, typically in Washington County. I also handle cases as a Guardian Ad Litem, often representing the interests of wards in custody and placement or guardianship disputes. My practice consists primarily of litigation-oriented cases in the areas of criminal, traffic, civil, family, and small claims.
Number of cases tried to verdict: 23 jury; approximately double if including family/court trials
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:
1. In 2017, I was appointed by the State Public Defender's office to represent a woman who was charged with Operating While Intoxicated-4th offense and drug-related charges when she was arrested in the parking lot of her child's daycare center. It was alleged that the abuse of prescription drugs were impairing the client's ability to drive. … The case went to trial in 2018. There were some bad facts on the surface of the case, but a focus on the details (such as using squad video evidence to point out that a gust of wind, never mentioned in the police report, could explain a poor "walk and turn" test) resulted in the presentation of a legitimate defense. Unfortunately, the client was convicted. The reason it is significant to me is because the client, and the client's sister (who was very close to the case), demonstrated total appreciation and gratitude for my efforts, despite the result. It reminded me that for some clients, having somebody fight for them and pour their heart into a case can be just as important as the result.
2. In 2019 I was appointed to serve as the Guardian Ad Litem for a six year old boy in a post-judgment custody and placement dispute. The primary issue that developed in the case was the mother's desire to move with the child to the State of Louisiana. The case was eventually tried over the course of two days … . It was a very difficult, emotional case, and it seemed evident that my recommendation as Guardian Ad Litem was going to carry significant weight. After thorough investigation of the case, I ultimately recommended in favor of permitting the Mother to move with the child, and for the father to have placement periods during summer and breaks. The court followed my recommendation. Developments in the case since that ruling have reaffirmed that I made the right recommendation and that the court made the right decision. It was significant to me because it highlighted the very serious issues that sometimes have to be decided that will have an impact on the parties before the court, and that such decisions need to be approached with full preparation, thoughtful consideration, and careful study of legal principles involved to reach the right conclusion.
3. In 2021, I was appointed to represent a father of a 12-year-old child whose maternal grandparents were seeking guardianship of her after the death of the child's mother. Temporary guardianship was granted, and the Guardian Ad Litem appeared to be heading towards recommending in favor of a permanent guardianship.… It seemed to me that others involved in the case viewed it as a "slam-dunk" that the child would remain with the grandparents. At trial, I made numerous evidentiary objections to the grandparents' case-in-chief that were sustained (properly, in my view) and after extensive preparation with my client, he presented himself favorably as a witness to the great surprise of the other attorneys. Ultimately, the court denied the guardianship petition and my client was reunited with his daughter. It was significant to me because it reinforced the importance of preparation and having faith in your client even when others involved in the case see it as a foregone conclusion.
Experience in adversary proceedings before administrative bodies:
Unless one would consider revocation hearings before the Division of Hearings and Appeals for defendants on probation or extended supervision as such a proceeding, my practice has not been involved in such hearings. In the event such hearings are considered applicable to this question, I have represented dozens of defendants facing revocation in such situations, including cases taken to a revocation hearing and administrative appeal or the negotiation of an Alternate to Revocation ("ATR").
Describe your non-litigation experience (e.g., arbitration, mediation).
I have done some basic estate planning for individuals, typically including the drafting and execution of Wills and Power of Attorney documents. I have also performed occasional document reviews (contracts, leases, etc.) for individual clients. My experience with alternative dispute resolution such as arbitration/mediation has been done in the context of litigation where I am representing a party.
All public offices to which you were appointed or elected:
Supplemental court commissioner, appointed, April 2020-present
Position or involvement in judicial, non-partisan, or partisan political campaign, committee, or organization: N/A
Previous runs for public office: N/A
All judicial or non-partisan candidates endorsed in the last ten years:
Todd K. Martens, Washington County Circuit Court judge, 2016/2017
Professional or civic and charitable organizations:
Washington County Bar Association, 2006-present; president 2015-2016
United Way of Washington County, board of directors, 2013-2016
Hartford's Better Education Scholarship Trust (BEST), 2006-2012
Sycamore Tree (Daycare), president, board of directors, 2017-present
Significant pro bono legal work or volunteer service:
For the last several years, I have been a volunteer attorney for the Washington County "Family Law Assistance Program", or FLAP. This is a program whereby attorneys that practice in Washington County volunteer time over the noon hour on Tuesdays at the Washington County Courthouse. During this time, individuals can seek the assistance of volunteer attorneys with forms, procedural questions, and other forms of assistance that do not involve providing legal advice.
Why I want to be a judge -- In my previous application submitted to this Committee in December of 2019 for the opening created by the retirement of the Honorable Andrew T. Gonring, I described how the evolution of my legal education, career, and personal life led me to feel a calling to serve as a judge. I wanted to make a tangible impact on the people of my community, and I felt at that time that serving as a judge was the most direct way for me to do precisely that.
Those feelings have only intensified since I wrote about them in 2019. In my law practice, I have seen the crucial role that a judge can play in making an impact on someone's life; not just on the parties in the cases that appear before the court, but on the friends, families, and communities of those parties. And the longer I practice, the clearer it is that a judge plays this crucial role to both the legal system and to the people of his or her community.
Everyday conversations with clients routinely demonstrate this phenomenon. It is remarkable how many clients will begin telling you about their case by referring to something they heard the judge say in court. 'The judge said that ... " or "I remember the judge told me... " or any number of similar statements, as an example. For many, the law is an intimidating subject that is difficult to understand and even more difficult to relate to. An encounter with a judge, however, breaks these barriers. "The law" and "court" can seem vague and complex; "the judge," however, can make a profound impact on people.
I want to serve as a judge because I want to make this impact on the community my family knows and loves. My wife and I were both born in Hartford, in Washington County. We were both raised in Hartford. We went to school in Hartford. We started dating as teenagers when we both attended Hartford Union High School. We were married in Hartford. And now, I am a practicing attorney, she is a nurse manager for Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin, and we are proudly and happily raising our four daughters in the same community we grew up in. We love this community, and I love the legal profession. Serving as a judge would be a fulfilling, rewarding opportunity to merge these two passions in a way unlike any other.
That is why I want to be a Washington County Circuit Court Judge.
Describe which case in the past 25 years by the Wisconsin Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court you believe had a significant positive or negative impact on the people of Wisconsin.
In my previous application, I explained how my particular background as a clerk in law school led me to become familiar with the issue of “tort reform” laws, and I pointed to the decision in Mayo v. Wis Patients Comp. Fund, 2018 WI 78, 383 Wis. 2d 1, 914 N.W.2d 678 to answer this question. That case declared the $750,000 damage cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice to be constitutional. The decision overruled the relatively recent Ferdon case finding just the opposite, for all intents and purposes. In citing Mayo, I mentioned that a large concern of mine was that the ruling suggests to the public that the Wisconsin Supreme Court is becoming an overtly political body, and that its rulings are merely temporary orders until the next election cycle or the next judicial appointment.
Developments in our country since that application has made this potential development even more concerning. The nominating process to fill vacancies in the United States Supreme Court and the national dialogue surrounding “hot-button” issues before the court, for instance, have me even more worried that the court system is being seen as a purely political body.
The primary reason it is so important to avoid these developments, in my view, is because the courts are the governmental institution that people have most faith in turning to when they feel that a wrong must be addressed. If that faith is shaken, the credibility of courts across the country is damaged.
This does not mean that all precedent must always stand, of course. But it is one thing to overrule precedent; it is another to engage in political discourse from the bench. In my view, the Mayo case reads more as a political disagreement with Ferdon than it does a legal one. I shudder to think what happens to the courts as an institution if the people of the United States, and the people of Wisconsin, begin to think of courts the same way they think of Congress.
Certainly, there are very large issues that the Wisconsin Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court often handle that have an enormous impact on the people. But because I believe the Mayo case pushes us too far in the direction of damaging the credibility of the courts as an institution, I believe it has had a negative impact on the people of Wisconsin.
Two or three judges whom I admire and why:
My previous application first cited Washington County’s Annette Ziegler primarily because (1) of the kind way she treated me as a new attorney appearing before her and (2) because she was the first female Washington County judge in history. These reasons are admittedly more personal than professional; my feeling that a judge can have an impact on people simply by the way they treat them is demonstrated by the impact she had on me as a young attorney appearing before her. And raising four young daughters, it provides a clear example for me to cite to my children how they can make an impact on their community and society as a whole, so long as they are committed to doing so.
I also cited Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, not necessarily for their views or legal philosophies but for their friendship and decorum towards one another. Earlier in this application I wrote about my views on the importance of the court keeping its credibility as an institution. Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg maintaining their friendship in such a public and obvious manner, given their equally public and equally obvious disagreements, helped demonstrate to the country that their disagreements were not personal or political – they were intellectual and philosophical.
If I were once again to be permitted an additional choice (if Justices Scalia and Ginsburg’s friendship is considered one), I would reiterate my admiration for the Honorable Andrew Gonring of the Washington County Circuit Court. Judge Gonring stands out as the most obvious judge in my career that made a direct impact on the people appearing before him, the impact that is so important to me … In addressing the Washington County Bar Association after his retirement, he indicated to us that while he may have appeared tough at times, he tried not to ask of any lawyer anything that he would not have asked of himself. I agree that he did just that.
The proper role of a judge:
First and foremost, I believe that the role of a judge is to apply the law as written in the statutes and as interpreted by controlling cases to the best of his or her ability regardless of the judge’s personal view towards the wisdom of the law.
Many circumstances at the trial court level will, of course, require the judge to exercise discretion in making decisions. When doing so, I believe a judge should consider and call upon the guidance of established legal standards; his/her training, education, and experience; community standards; and in some instances, his/her intuition.
I also believe it is the proper role of a judge to ensure that every party in a case receives, and feels as though they received, a fair chance in court. This means a judge must avoid any preconceived notions of their cases or the parties before them. A judge must be willing to make decisions that they believe are correct without regard to outside criticism that it may generate from talk radio, social media, or otherwise. Parties will never leave a courtroom agreeing with every decision the judge has made; but they can leave a courtroom agreeing that both sides had their day in court and were treated with fairness and respect.
Finally, I also believe it is the role of a trial judge to serve as an example to others in the community. A judge should conduct himself or herself with the temperament, humility, and decorum that is fitting of the judiciary. Doing so benefits the community at large, reinforces credibility in the judicial branch, and helps reassure the public that the courts are indeed a special place in the State of Wisconsin and the United States of America.
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