In the election for Wisconsin Court of Appeals District 1 judge, Attorney Sara J. Geenen is challenging incumbent Judge William W. Brash III. Brash currently serves as chief judge for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Geenen is a partner at The Previant Law Firm, SC.
Election Day is April 4.
WJI asked each of the candidates to answer a series of questions. The questions asked are patterned after some of those on the job application Gov. Evers uses when he is considering judicial appointments.
Geenen responded to the questionnaire, and her answers are presented here as submitted. Brash did not respond to the questionnaire. However, WJI posted portions of Brash's 2015 application for judicial appointment in a recent "Walker's judges" post on Brash.
SARA J. GEENEN
Why do you want to become a judge?
I chose a career to help me win “justice” for regular people, for workers, for those often taken advantage of as the result of imbalances in power, for those discriminated against because of who they are or where they are from. “Justice,” however, requires democracy - it requires that the will of the people, of those affected, be heard. Being heard means the right to have one’s vote count, the right to leverage workers’ power to address working conditions, the right to peaceably protest and demand accountability.
Over the course of my career, though, “justice,” in its purest sense as the check on power that keeps democracy balanced, has been diluted by the effects of decisions like Citizens United, allowing corporate money to direct election outcomes. This has led to legislation meant to stifle the voice of workers, the Wisconsin gerrymander which intentionally reduces the value of some votes, and the destruction of some of our fundamental rights. Because the judiciary plays a significant role in protecting democracy and our fundamental rights, I decided to run for appellate judge.
The corporate interests controlling our government and laws cannot be allowed to maintain control of the judiciary. The people of Wisconsin deserve a truly independent, impartial, transparent judiciary that will give real and fair consideration to the cases and the people before it and affected by its decisions, at all levels, and I can offer that.
Name one of the best United States or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last thirty years and explain why you feel that way.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, that the government should not prohibit two consenting adults from being recognized and safe in their loving relationships, is one of the most important and best opinions in the last 30 years. Specifically, the rationale underlying the decision, that equal protection under the laws extends to rights “so fundamental they must be accorded respect,” is critical to a fair and functioning democracy. The decision in Obergefell follows the logical arc and conclusion of cases like Griswold, Lawrence, Loving, and Roe which recognized that people are entitled to the right of privacy within their personal sphere, “to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person.”
Name one of the worst United States or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last thirty years and explain why you feel that way.
Citizens United, via a massive overhaul of the campaign finance system that greatly favors corporations and the wealthy, was the first step in making the political process inaccessible to all. Because money is often a means to amplify one’s voice, it causes some voices to be heard more than others, creating a significant obstacle to those without wealth or power. This was followed by Gill v. Whitford, involving Wisconsin’s 2011 gerrymandered redistricting (and its associated case Rucho), which essentially rubber-stamped a political process that demonstrably stripped away people’s power, their voice, and their ability to affect change by meaningful and equal participation in voting. Too many cases continue the trend of minimizing the participation of some in the process for the benefit of few, of the powerful. On the heels of decisions that minimize political power, courts have begun to approve limitations on access to judicial systems as well. For instance, the Epic Systems case prohibits employees who sign a class action waiver or mandatory arbitration agreement as a condition of their employment – employees who won’t have a job if they don’t sign – from banding together with coworkers to seek relief together (as a class, with counsel) and from seeking redress for matters like sexual harassment or unpaid wages in an appropriate administrative or judicial forum, by, instead, requiring that the dispute be resolved pursuant to an individual arbitration agreement, typically a non-negotiable form agreement drafted by an employer’s lawyers, which tends to favor the employer. The effect is often “justice denied” — employees are less likely to navigate the arbitration process individually and less likely to be successful if they do.
In all of these cases, the balance of power and considerations of actual fairness or equitability are ignored. These outcomes reflect – whether intentionally or not – a systematic departure from decades of thoughtful jurisprudence that takes into account the consequences of a dispute and decision. Each of these decisions represents a small piece of an end result that poses a significant threat to the people of Wisconsin and democracy. They undermine political involvement, restrict access to the legislative and judicial process, and seek to undermine individuals’ right to band together to seek change. In short, these decisions combine to cut off access to any kind of justice or redress.
Describe your judicial philosophy.
I believe that the proper role of a judge is to ensure a fair, thoughtful process that honors and protects parties' rights while maintaining the integrity of the judiciary, and which upholds the law, the constitution, and our rights and freedoms. A fair, thoughtful process requires preparation and an approach that prioritizes transparency, recognizes the barriers to access to the judicial system, ensures that parties are aware of their rights and how the process works, while under substantial time constraints.
Describe the two most significant cases in which you were involved as either an attorney or a judicial officer.
In re: Wasco, Inc., a case in the bankruptcy court for the Middle District of Tennessee, the employer filed bankruptcy citing its bargaining agreement with a union and its pension obligations, despite stating publicly that it was “sound and profitable,” and I sought to have the case dismissed on behalf of my client, the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers union, as filed in bad faith. While the bankruptcy judge ruled against my client following a 5-day trial on our motion to dismiss, we were successful on appeal to the district court, which ordered the bankruptcy court’s decision reversed.
In re: Appleton Coated, a state court receivership case in Outagamie County, involved a paper mill in the area I grew up in – where several of my relatives, acquaintances from high school, and family friends were employed, and which was undoubtedly an important part of the local economy and overall community – being forced into receivership by its lenders and being shut down. There was a contentious, multi-day trial related to the Motion to Sell the assets and legal issues involving state receivership law and federal labor law, as well as interplay between the two. There were significant efforts by the parties that halted the receiver’s liquidation efforts and resulted in an agreement that saved over half the jobs and gave the paper mill and community new life. After the initial litigation over the sale and operation of the plant, I continued to litigate various matters including disputes related to obtaining workers’ payments on claims for wages they were owed, finally resulting in payments this past fall.
Describe your legal experience as an advocate in criminal litigation, civil litigation, and administrative proceedings.
I practice union and employee-side labor and employment law. I represent employees, individually or as a class, in wage and hour matters and discrimination cases in lawsuits in state and federal courts and administrative proceedings. I’ve also represented individuals in individual employment contract matters in state court. The vast majority of my advocacy work is related to my representation of labor unions. This representation includes drafting proposed legislative or rule changes and internal and public comments to such proposals, enforcing labor agreements, matters related to labor strikes or other disputes, and various other matters before federal and state courts, the National Labor Relations Board, and, occasionally, other agencies. A large part of my practice also includes representing unions and their members in federal bankruptcy court to recover employees’ earned but unpaid wages and benefits when their employer goes bankrupt, and serving on creditors’ committees to help restructure such employers.
Have you ever been convicted of a crime, either misdemeanor or felony? If so, explain. When did the incident(s) occur?
Have you ever been cited for a municipal offense? If so, explain. When did the incident(s) occur?
I received a traffic ticket when I was 16, right after I received my driver’s license, due to my involvement in a minor accident.
Do you support requiring any justice to recuse him/herself from cases involving donors and indirect supporters who contribute money or other resources to the judge's election? If not, why not? If so, why? What contribution limits would you set?
We need a much stronger and clearer recusal rule in Wisconsin. Such a rule should be developed in a transparent, public process. A judge should consider recusal from cases in which a significant donor is a direct or interested party. Whether or not justice can truly be bought with a campaign contribution, the possibility of tainted justice cannot be acceptable. In this divisive time, transparency and confidence that the judiciary is acting justly and in the people’s interest are paramount.
What are the greatest obstacles judges face when trying to deliver true justice? What can or should be done about them?
The biggest obstacle is that “justice” is being co-opted by special interests that try to tip the scales or make the system less transparent.
Another obstacle is that the legal system was not set up for “justice” but as a means to resolve disputes over possessions and liability for actions. The justice system often considers these disputes in a vacuum, and does not fully consider the law-making or societal context for these disputes.
Provide any other information you feel would be helpful to potential voters deciding whom to vote for.
My opponent was appointed by Scott Walker and has tremendous support from right-wing special interests, including the current and former heads of the Bradley Foundation and many Republican officials. In contrast, I have an independent perspective, built from a career representing ordinary working people. I can be trusted to uphold the law and the constitution without fear or favor, not to advance a right-wing agenda.
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