Attorney Molly Gena and Attorney and Sen. Lena Taylor are running for the Milwaukee Municipal Court seat being vacated by Derek Mosley, who left the bench for a position at Marquette University Law School.
Election Day is Tuesday, April 4.
WJI asked each of the candidates to answer a series of questions. Taylor did not respond to the questionnaire. Gena responded, and her answers are printed here as submitted.
The questions are patterned after some of those on the job application Gov. Evers uses when he is considering judicial appointments.
Gena, managing attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin, received her law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her resume is here.
Taylor, a state senator, received her law degree from the Southern Illinois University School of Law, according to the State Bar of Wisconsin's online attorney directory.
The two candidates participated in a candidate forum held by Wisconsin Justice Initiative on January 25, 2023. Watch the video.
Why do you want to become a judge?
I am running for Milwaukee Municipal Judge because I have dedicated my career to public service, and I want to continue to serve Milwaukee as its next judge. I have been a civil legal aid attorney for over 15 years, providing free legal services to those who cannot afford an attorney in Milwaukee Municipal Court and all over Wisconsin. I have seen firsthand the barriers too many people face when seeking justice. I whole-heartedly believe that the judicial process needs to be easier for people to access and understand, and that judges, as stewards of the court, are responsible for promoting access and ensuring the court’s positive impact on the community as a whole.
Representing clients in the municipal court for over 15 years, I know how much impact the court has on people and the community. Although municipal court cases are not criminal cases, they still have serious consequences. They may show up on criminal background checks. They are often used to deny housing and employment. Most frequently, when someone misses the deadline to pay a fine, the municipal court automatically issues arrest warrants or driver’s license suspensions until they pay. The serious implications that these cases have on people’s lives deserve thoughtful and deliberate consideration.
I will not punish people simply because they cannot afford to pay tickets. People living in poverty should not face harsher consequences for the same violations as those who have the means to pay their fines. Instead, for those who cannot afford their tickets, I will look to alternatives like community service, affordable payment plans, fine reductions, and the tax refund intercept program. I would use these alternatives based on each individual situation. This will allow me to spend more time handling serious violations like the dangerous reckless driving that plagues Milwaukee streets. In those more serious traffic-safety cases, the behavior of the driver will drive the severity of the consequence rather than their financial circumstance.
I have been a champion for racial justice and racial equity throughout my entire career. Punishing people who cannot pay their tickets with warrants and driver’s license suspensions has disproportionately affected people of color. It has been shown to be an ineffective debt collection device that further harms our community. I would be intentional about addressing racial disparities and encourage the city attorneys, law enforcement officers, and others in the system to do the same.
Courts can hold people accountable without punishing them just for being poor. I will focus on reducing the court’s reliance on default judgments and punishments to adopt a more individualized approach to cases that considers the circumstances of each individual who comes before me. This means adjudicating cases in a timely manner and working on systemic changes to make the court more efficient, ensuring justice and fairness and accessibility while enhancing public safety. The court can ensure that violators of the law are held responsible, while also allowing them to work, support their family, and contribute to the community.
Name one of the best United States or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last thirty years and explain why you feel that way.
I think Bank of New York Mellon v. Shirley Carson (2015) was an excellent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that had significant ramifications for the City of Milwaukee. This case dealt with “zombie foreclosures” or abandoned properties that have been in foreclosure for a long time. The bank had obtained a judgment of foreclosure against a homeowner but then did not immediately sell the property, letting it languish for over 16 months. The house remained in Ms. Carson’s name, though she moved out when she thought she no longer owned it. The house was subsequently vandalized and in disarray. Ms. Carson received multiple building code violations and was ordered to pay about $1,800 in fines even though she was not living there. She learned she still owned the home when she received the tickets. She was an elderly widow, and she went to Legal Action of Wisconsin for help. They filed a motion to amend the judgment to find the home was abandoned and order the bank to sell the property. The circuit court denied the motion, and it was eventually appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that once a property is declared abandoned, the bank must follow through and sell the property within a reasonable amount of time.
The decision was important for homeowners, because “zombie foreclosures'' were common in Milwaukee. It also was important in preventing crime and blight in the city. The decision was applauded by city officials, including the mayor of Milwaukee. However, it also has major significance for me because I was fortunate to be able to watch my friend and colleague argue the case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Watching her argue one of our non-profit civil legal aid law firm’s cases and then win it was incredibly exciting and inspiring. While I am certainly biased, it was argued and written exceptionally well. It encouraged me to continue as a public interest law attorney. When I first started as a baby lawyer other lawyers in court would ask me what I do and where I work. When I told them that I was a civil legal aid lawyer, I would sometimes hear, “That’s nice, but when are you going to get a real job?” I did not settle for my job because I could not get a corporate firm job. This is the work that I went to law school to do. I believe that representation at a non-profit law firm is every bit as important, technically demanding, and fulfilling as any other practice, and our law firm’s work in this case was affirmation of that belief. The outstanding oral and written advocacy in this case resulted in a unanimous decision that reminded the legal community that civil legal aid attorneys are real lawyers too.
Name one of the worst United States or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last thirty years and explain why you feel that way.
The recent Supreme Court of the United States decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center continues to plague our country. It denies women their fundamental rights. I do not need to rehash the painful holding, ramifications, or completely wrong analysis, but it has been gut-wrenching to watch the clinics in Wisconsin have to stop providing essential medical services in response to such a flawed decision. While the opinion does not directly affect cases in Milwaukee Municipal Court, it is tragic and will cause women to lose their lives.
Describe your judicial philosophy.
My judicial philosophy centers around two principal concepts: access to justice and equal justice. The administration of justice is an unheralded, but critical role of any judge and in a people’s court like the municipal court, it is even more essential that it be handled with access to justice and equal justice in mind.
I believe that a judge should ensure and promote access to justice by being transparent and accountable, and by championing ideals like a right to counsel in civil cases as well as criminal. The court should be open to innovation and developing new initiatives to promote access, such as the community court programs, and willing to allow litigants to appear in court as walk-ins without scheduled appearances.
A municipal court judge should strive to ensure equal justice through every aspect of how they administer the law. That begins, at a base level, by treating everyone fairly and with dignity and respect, while still holding people accountable and protecting public safety. Furthermore, patience is critical. I understand that there may be some people in court who are facing trauma, mental illness, or homelessness and may not have the resources to navigate the legal system. It is imperative for judges to clearly and effectively communicate to ensure that they understand their rights, the consequences of municipal convictions, and the legal process. Equal justice can be further advanced by providing litigants with increased access to resources that can better their situation, helping to reduce recidivism and improving the odds of their court case ultimately bettering them individually and as part of the community.
Finally, I believe that municipal courts are not a fundraising apparatus and they are not debt collectors. The function of the municipal court is not to bring in revenue but to administer justice, and to adjudicate city ordinance violation cases.
Describe the two most significant cases in which you were involved as either an attorney or a judicial officer.
I sued the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) to help reinstate my client’s driver’s license that had been revoked for 14 years and fixed a flawed agency practice. His license was revoked after he defaulted on a court-ordered payment plan related to a minor accident. I negotiated with the attorney for the creditor to obtain another payment plan and lift the suspension so he could get to work. We submitted the payment plan to the DOT, but the DOT did not approve it because they had a rule at the time that drivers who defaulted on a court-ordered payment plan were never eligible for another payment plan. I sued the DOT on my client’s behalf in a Chapter 227 petition for judicial review in Milwaukee County Circuit Court and argued that the DOT’s decision was contrary to state law which clearly allowed for a second payment plan. Eventually, the Assistant Attorney General agreed that the DOT would reinstate my client’s driver’s license and promulgate an administrative rule on payment plans for these types of suspensions and give our law firm an opportunity to comment on the language of the rule prior to the public comment. We settled the circuit court case and I submitted written comments and testified about the proposed rule which directly cited my case. The DOT agreed with me and the rule stated they would start permitting an unlimited number of payment plans. This is significant for low-income drivers because at the time the suspensions for an unpaid damage judgment were 20 years long. Payment plans allow drivers to get their licenses back while making payments to the creditor.
In another case, I represented a client in attempting to lift their driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay minor traffic tickets in Milwaukee Municipal Court. She had to take two buses to get to work. The court had a policy that litigants could get one payment plan and if they defaulted, they had to pay 30% of the total amount of the tickets in order to lift the driver’s license suspensions. For my client, that was $118 that she did not have. I filed a motion for a payment plan citing the poverty protections in the statutes. The judge denied my motion and my motion to reconsider. I then filed an appeal in circuit court, a notable fact because only about 5% of defendants in the municipal court have attorneys and few appeals of municipal court decisions are filed. The circuit court judge agreed and held that because the municipal court judge did make a finding that she was unable to pay due to poverty (which they had to make because she was receiving food stamps), they acted contrary to the law which required them to lift her driver’s license suspensions. The case was reversed and remanded to the municipal court and we continued to file motions in municipal courts throughout the state to force judges to follow the law and the specific poverty protections within it.
Describe your legal experience as an advocate in criminal litigation, civil litigation, and administrative proceedings.
I do not have much criminal litigation experience. At the UW Law School, I participated in the Innocence Project and I worked on the Audrey Edmunds case in Dane County in which we filed a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. My professor argued the case, but I did draft the affidavits for our expert witnesses and collaborated on the strategy and arguments. I have also represented a couple of clients on criminal Operating After Revocation cases in assisting them with efforts to obtain their driver’s licenses.
I have much more civil litigation experience. I have represented clients in over 45 different municipal courts in the state and over 20 circuit courts. I have represented clients in traffic tickets, civil ordinances, and parking tickets in municipal courts. I have also defended clients in evictions, money judgment and consumer cases in both small and large claims. I have filed a few appeals. Most of my work has been motion practice, poverty hearings, evidentiary hearings and brief writing.
I have also represented clients in administrative proceedings in hearings in front of both the DOT and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee. I have appealed some of those decisions to circuit court as well.
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?
What are the greatest obstacles judges face when trying to deliver true justice? What can or should be done about them?
I think the biggest problem is that the system itself is not fair and accessible for everyone. There are systemic barriers in our justice system, especially for people of color, low-income families, and other marginalized communities.
Many people have a hard time understanding and using the legal system. This is especially true for people who are not fluent in English or who do not have enough money to hire a lawyer. Additionally, the bureaucracy involved in seeking justice can be overwhelming or difficult to navigate. And for many, the hours that courts typically operate conflict with working hours that they are not able or cannot afford to miss. Everyone deserves equal access to our justice system.
Overall, addressing the obstacles to justice requires a multifaceted and systemic approach, including addressing bias and discrimination, increasing access to justice, and addressing the underlying social and economic issues that contribute to inequality in the justice system.
If elected, I plan to take a number of actions to help remove some of these barriers to justice. I plan to minimize automatic judgments and defaults whenever possible, and consider all of the circumstances in the cases that come before me. Additionally, I will continue the court’s practice of holding court in the community and in the evenings.
For most of my career and practice in the Milwaukee Municipal Court, everyone had the ability to “walk-in” to the court to be heard. This means that they could come in without a scheduled time post-judgment to ask for a payment plan or community service. Milwaukee Municipal Court is one of only two full-time municipal courts in the state, and walk-ins are essential to make the court accessible and fair. However, that practice stopped in 2020 with the pandemic, and the court has not brought it back. Walk-in court is essential for a people’s court, so they can be heard and resolve their tickets quickly. The circuit court allows walk-ins on civil tickets, and that practice needs to be restored in the municipal court, and I plan on doing just that.
Finally, we are experiencing a reckless driving epidemic in the city that is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. However, instead of focusing on traffic safety, Milwaukee Municipal Court instead orders tens of thousands of driver’s license suspensions per year to collect debt. I would reserve driver's license suspensions for serious and harmful driving behavior so that the court, police, and DMV can focus their resources on safety violations. This would ensure that courts do more good than harm in our community. One of my top priorities as judge will be significantly reducing the time between when someone is issued a reckless driving ticket, and the time that they are in court to face potential penalties, so we can get the most dangerous drivers off the street and held accountable sooner. And in less serious cases, I would utilize evidence-based solutions and alternatives to fines and suspensions, like ordering drivers to attend traffic safety courses.
Provide any other information you feel would be helpful to potential voters deciding for whom to vote.
As I have said, I would discontinue certain debt collection tools/sanctions for failure to pay tickets, such as driver’s license suspensions or commitments to jail. I have seen through my 15 years representing countless clients in municipal court that these are ineffective at coercing payment and actually have the opposite effect. Suspending driver’s licenses and jailing people keeps them from being able to get to work, making it even less likely for them to be able to pay tickets. Municipalities spend more to jail defendants than what is collected in payments. Those who can pay do pay their tickets, and those that cannot just end up stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty if they lose their licenses or go to jail for not paying minor municipal tickets. I would increase the use of community service (which still holds people accountable and benefits the community), reasonable payment plans, and lower fines. Fines should be proportional to one’s ability to pay, and payment plans must also be reasonable for the individual litigant. Furthermore, the law requires courts to lift driver’s license suspensions and warrants for anyone that cannot pay due to poverty. The majority of those who do pay are statutorily unable to pay due to poverty because they are on public assistance such as W-2, SSI or food stamps or qualify for a public defender of civil legal attorney. It is a waste of court and law enforcement resources to suspend or issue warrants in the first place.
The overwhelming majority (75-80%) of cases in Milwaukee Municipal Court are default judgments. This means that the litigants, or people facing penalties, do not appear in court and a judgment is automatically entered against them. Most of the time an appearance is not required, and most litigants do not see the value in coming to court. These cases are automated in the system and once the judgment is entered, they are given 60 days to pay. I would review not only the tickets in which the litigants appear in court, but every single case. Before entering a default judgment, I would review the citations to ensure that the judgment is warranted under the circumstances.
Individual consideration of the cases and the underlying behavior on a case-by-case basis is not limited to traffic, but would be applied throughout my courtroom. As a result, my court would be able to hold slumlords accountable in a fashion like reckless drivers. I have had clients who own their houses and are on a fixed income and need help making repairs to their homes who are being punished more severely than slumlords because of their inability to pay the fines. I would give homeowners time to address those issues and provide them with resources to assist them with those repairs. And I would dismiss or reduce tickets once they have fixed the problems. I would consider raising fines for slumlords who own and rent out multiple properties with terrible living conditions where their tenants have no recourse.
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