"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: Suzanne O’Neill
Appointed to: Marathon County Circuit Court
Appointment date: June 22, 2020 (elected to a six-year term in April 2021)
Law School – DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois
Undergraduate – St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, New York
High School – Trinity High, River Forest, Illinois
Recent legal employment:
January 2020-present – Deputy Trial Division director, Wisconsin State Public Defender, Wisconsin
2017-2019 – Regional attorney manager, Wisconsin State Public Defender, Wausau, Wisconsin
2004-2017 – Local attorney manager, public defender, same
1991-2004 – Assistant state public defender, same
Bar and Administrative Memberships:
State Bar of Wisconsin
General character of practice:
My practice centers around criminal defense of indigent clients, and includes representing clients charged with all levels of felonies, misdemeanors and traffic offenses. Additionally, my practice includes representing vulnerable individuals such as juveniles alleged to have committed delinquent acts, children alleged to be in need of protection and services, parents facing termination of parental rights and children and adults responding to petitions for civil commitments and protective placements.
Describe typical clients:
My typical clients are indigent, marginalized individuals. I have specialized in criminal defense cases, including felony, misdemeanor and traffic cases. Throughout my career, I have at various times specialized in particular areas of defense, including: sexual predator commitment cases, sexually violent offender cases, abusive head trauma cases, not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect cases, juvenile cases, termination of parental right cases.
Number of cases tried to verdict: More than 30 to a jury
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:
I was counsel for the mother in a Termination of Parental Rights case, in Marathon County … from April, 2019 to January, 2020. My role as lead counsel was to prepare the case for trial. After deposing the relevant social workers, it became clear that social services had failed to provide adequate services to the mother who had cognitive limitations. The discovery through depositions forced the county to dismiss the petition. It was significant because by deposing the social workers, my client retained the rights to her child, keeping her family intact. Additionally, it brought to light the poor practices of social services which will presumably cause change in their operations and produce success with future families.
I was co-counsel in a complex felony domestic violence case, in Marathon County … from September, 2017 to April, 2018. I joined the case as co-counsel to assist a junior staff attorney when the case appeared to becoming increasingly complex. My role was to research motions, prepare for trial, and develop a trusting relationship with the client. The case was complicated by its similarities with allegations from a local mass shooting that had traumatized the community months earlier that had been reported extensively in the media. I successfully argued a change of venire motion that caused the prosecutor to re-evaluate the case and offer a deferred entry of judgement agreement. Our client avoided a felony conviction that would likely have resulted in a significant prison term.
I represented a client charged with a Class C felony drug offense, in Marathon County … from August, 2018-December, 2019. After thorough investigation, I was able to negotiate a reduction of the charge to a Class E felony. At the contested sentencing hearing, the court adopted my argument that probation was the appropriate disposition rather than the multiple year prison term advocated by the state. It was significant because my client was the mother of three young children; she struggled with chemical dependency but had never been afforded the opportunity for treatment. The sentence imposed provided her an opportunity for community based treatment while continuing to care for her children.
Experience in adversary proceedings before administrative bodies: Experience limited to representing clients at revocation of community supervision cases before the Division of Hearings and Appeals
Describe your non-litigation experience (e.g., arbitration, mediation). Experience includes consulting with State Public Defender agency leaders concerning agency compliance.
Position or involvement in judicial, non-partisan, or partisan political campaign, committee, or organization: None listed
Previous runs for public office: None listed
All judicial or non-partisan candidates endorsed in the last ten years:
Jill Karofsky, Wisconsin Supreme Court, 2020
Lisa Neubauer, Wisconsin Supreme Court, 2019
Michael Moran, Marathon County Circuit Court, 2011
Professional or civic and charitable organizations:
Marathon County Bar Association, 2004 to present; president, 2013
Marathon County Criminal Defense Bar, 2011 to present
National Association for Public Defense, 2019 to present
Marathon County Library Foundation, 2013-2019, including as president and vice president
Significant pro bono legal work or volunteer service: None listed
Why I want to be a judge — Public service is my vocation. I went to law school with the purpose to become a public servant. I hoped to find a career in which I could help people who were struggling to find fairness and equity in a society that marginalized their existence. I wanted to advocate for just solutions in our often unfair and chaotic world. Upon graduating from law school, I came to the State of Wisconsin to serve its citizens as a public defender, where I have remained through my career. As a public defender, I have worked to ensure that indigent defendants receive a zealous defense and are treated fairly and with dignity. I have found fulfillment in helping marginalized individuals in the search of fairness and in advocating for justice for them. I have enjoyed being a voice for those who might otherwise be silent. I have attained satisfaction knowing that through my efforts individual clients have received justice and that they have perceived that they are valued in the judicial system, that their voice matters, that they have been heard and that the system has been fair to them.
I want to serve the people of Wisconsin as a judge because I want to continue to help people who are struggling to find fairness and equity. I want to find and apply just solutions to conflicts regardless of a litigant's stature in society. I want litigants to be heard, to be respected and to know that they are valued by the judicial system. I want to help people and entities navigate conflict and resolve conflict for them in an atmosphere of honesty, integrity, and dignity. The people of Wisconsin deserve a judiciary that will honor and respect the rights and liberties guaranteed by our constitution. Ensuring a fair, just and impartial forum for our citizens to argue and resolve conflict would provide me with personal and professional meaning and satisfaction.
The constitutional republic established by our country's founders remains the fairest and best form of government. The system of checks and balances adopted in our republic demand that each branch of government remain strong to ensure its continued success. It is important that judges act with courage in questioning the failures or abuses of the other branches of government. It is important that judges be audacious in the protection of recognized rights and liberties. It is important that the judiciary be comprised of hard working, well-reasoned, selfless judges seeking to better society rather than their own personal gain.
I want to serve the people of Wisconsin as a judge to ensure that the people of this great state have a judge who will work hard, listen attentively, reason thoughtfully, provide dignified resolutions to every conflict and communicate every decision in a manner honoring the importance of every issue to each litigant. I want be a judge who demonstrates the courage and audacity to protect the rights and liberties of the citizens of our state.
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.
The citizens of Wisconsin were once divided over the right of all couples to marry. A marginally enacted state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman was held unconstitutional in Wolf v. Walker, 9 F.Supp.3d 889 (W.D.Wis.2014). Despite the Wolf Court's ruling, a divide remained within the state and the nation, as other states maintained marriage restrictions. Wisconsin's right of all couples to marry lacked complete legitimacy.
The United States Supreme Court resolved any remaining doubt that same sex couples have a right to marry in Obergefell v. Hodges … (2015). In Obergefell, the Court affirmed that the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in a person's liberty, and thus, same sex couples must be afforded the right to marry pursuant to the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Obergefell delivered a nationwide message that all couples are free to marry, bridging a divide between states and within states, and positively impacting Wisconsin citizens.
In recognizing marriage as a fundamental right and protecting same sex couples who want to enter the commitment of marriage, the Supreme Court provided equality and dignity to gay and lesbian citizens. When a right is denied to a class of people, the individuals within the discriminated class inherently perceive that they are not valued, are insignificant and have no meaningful place in society. The Obergefell decision provided gay and lesbian individuals with renewed self-worth and dignity, while reminding others that all individuals are entitled to respect, regardless of sexual orientation.
Additionally, Obergefell provided children of same sex couples with a sense of security and belonging. All individuals need to sense that they are loved and that they belong to an acceptable community. Children are especially vulnerable and need reassurances of their value. When the family in which a child belongs is not respected, that child will struggle to find self-worth. Obergefell’s recognition that same sex couples have the fundamental right to marry and create a family, legitimizes those families. Mainstream acceptance of a child's loving family builds that child's sense of belonging and self-worth, empowering that child to prosper.
In recognizing that same sex couples have a right to marry equal to that of opposite sex couples, Obergefell placed the government's imprimatur on same sex relationships and advanced society's acceptance of the LGBTQ community. American society has frequently struggled to accept as equal people who are considered "different". The country has a long history of discriminating against those perceived to be of less value and importance because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Discrimination is born from fear of the unfamiliar and often develops into hate. Until society views all individuals as equal and until all individual differences are valued, discrimination will continue and hate will prevail. In Obergefell, the Court proclaimed that same sex couples are equal and that they have value in every society, regardless of state lines, positively impacting Wisconsinites.
Two or three judges whom I admire and why: While I admire many judges for their intellect, work ethic, skill and courage, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Circuit Court Judge Greg Grau are admired for their judicial respect of humanity and promotion of individual dignity.
Despite being born into an era beholden to Jim Crow laws, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall tenaciously achieved success advancing civil rights and promoting racial equality. Denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School because of his race, Justice Marshall succeeded to earn a law degree from Howard University. Having personally experienced blatant racial discrimination, Marshall proceeded to dedicate his legal career to eradicating archaic segregation laws and to promoting equality and civil rights.
As an attorney, Marshall zealously and successfully argued unpopular positions in cases that ultimately advanced the civil rights movement and paved a judicial path to positive change. As a U.S. Court of Appeals Judge and Supreme Court Justice, Marshall continued to advance the fair treatment of all individuals and the protection of the inherent rights of all citizens, regardless of race. From the bench, Marshall displayed sensitivity to the injustices of discrimination and voiced opinions to correct inequities. He persistently valued the civil liberties owed to all individuals.
Although a conservative majority silenced Justice Marshall's voice on the Supreme Court later in his career, Marshall never stopped speaking the truth. He never stopped advocating for justice. He never lost sight of the marginalized individual and of the struggle of many to achieve respect, dignity and equality. I admire Justice Marshall for his determination in fighting for equality in the face of hatred, for his relentless advocacy for individual rights of all people, and his judicial protection and advancement of personal liberty.
Although Circuit Court Judge Greg Grau did not comparatively impact the nation's civil rights movement, Judge Grau did display respect for the individual rights of litigants, equal to that of Justice Marshall. Throughout his judicial career, Judge Grau presided over thousands of cases. He approached each case thoroughly prepared, having read all filing and completed relevant research. He attentively received the evidence and listened to the arguments. He rationally considered and balanced competing interests. He applied the law and articulated reasoned, legally supported and practical decisions. While I admire Judge Grau's preparation and methodical case processing, what I admire most about Judge Grau is his consistent treatment of all litigants with respect and dignity. He was patient, empathetic and considerate toward every individual, regardless of the circumstance that brought the person to court. Despite the numerous cases in which he presided, he treated every individual with the recognition that each court appearance was a crucial moment in a litigant's life. Judge Grau never minimized the importance of a decision; he never entered an order without thought and careful consideration; he never forgot that the individuals who appeared before him to resolve their conflict deserved his full attention, the right to be heard and to be treated with respect and dignity.
The proper role of a judge:
The proper role of a judge is to actively guide litigants through the court process and to resolve controversies pursuant to valid laws, while fervently protecting the rights and liberties of individuals and entities. Controversies are appropriately resolved and rights and liberties are properly protected when a judge interprets and applies the law conscious of beliefs and values of current society. A judge must resolve current controversies cognizant of the present world. As society changes, so too must our recognition of rights and liberties and our resolutions of conflicts.
At its core, the role of a judge is to be an impartial adjudicator. A judge must objectively listen to the litigants and witnesses, must consider the evidence and arguments, must research the issues, and must resolve the controversy while respecting the litigants and controlling the courtroom.
In resolving the conflict, the judge must consider existing laws and past precedent, and apply those precepts to the case presented. The role of the court is to apply the laws the legislature has enacted and to consider how earlier courts have applied the law. The doctrine of stare decisis is a cornerstone of our judicial system. A court's deference and adoption of relevant precedent promotes predictability and fairness. It provides notice of how laws will be applied and aids in the orderly operation of the judicial system.
Nevertheless, the role of the judge is not to simply rely blindly on precedent. The role of the judge is to consider how the existing laws and precedent apply to the current situation. Time and time again, courts have confronted and properly invalidated antiquated beliefs and presumptions, overruling precedent. Courts have redefined fundamental rights and liberties and recognized their need for protection, rights that likely would have never entered judicial discourse decades earlier. Without judicial evolution, judicial legitimacy would be lost.
The proper role of a judge is to guide litigants through the court process and to resolve controversies pursuant to valid laws and in consideration of sound precedent. A judge's role goes behind the uncritical application of the past. A judge's role is to exercise reasoned judgement and act to protect fundamental rights and liberties regardless of antiquated verbiage. As Justice Kennedy succinctly stated, judges must "respect our history and learn from it without allowing the past alone to rule the present."
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