"Walker's judges" is our effort to present information about Gov. Walker's appointees to the bench. The information is taken from the appointees' own judgeship applications.
Name: Paul J. Rifelj
Appointed to: Milwaukee County Circuit Court
Appointment date: Dec. 14, 2015 (lost bid for full term in April 2016 election)
Law School – University of Wisconsin
Undergrad – University of Wisconsin-Madison
High School – Marquette University High School
2011 - present – Staff Attorney, State of Wisconsin Public Defender's Office, Wauwatosa
2005 - 2011 – Staff Attorney, State of Wisconsin Public Defender's Office, Racine
2003 - 2005 – Attorney at Law, Law Office of Paul J. Rifelj, Wauwatosa
2001 - 2003 – Legal Intern, Legal Assistance to Institutionalized Persons Project, UW Law School
Wisconsin State Bar
Legal experience as an advocate in criminal litigation, civil litigation, and administrative proceedings: I have been a trial lawyer for my entire legal career. I have extensive courtroom experience, with numerous trials and dozens of bench trials and evidentiary motions litigated. Within my office, I have a reputation as an attorney who regularly handles the most challenging and difficult cases available. And within the Children's Center, I am known to be an experienced and skilled litigator.
Number of cases tried to verdict or judgment: Approximately 50
Cases on appeal:
One appellate case - Interlocutory Appeal
State v. McCotter 08 CF-1419 (Racine County)
List and describe the three most significant cases in which you were involved:
My client, a fifteen year old boy with no criminal record whatsoever, was Charged with two counts of Armed Robbery occurring over a period of three days. He was seen by police officers in the general vicinity of the second Robbery, and was later identified by the victim of the second robbery in a photo lineup. Other circumstantial evidence appeared to link him to the crimes when he was initially charged.
From the onset of the case, my client insisted that he was completely innocent … In preparation for trial, my investigator and I examined every detail of the case and interviewed 15-20 witnesses. Eventually, by combining my client's school records, statements from his teachers, family, and other witnesses along with cell phone tracking data, we established an alibi for the client which excluded him from the second robbery and cast serious doubt as to the first.
Our investigation moved the Assistant District Attorney to have serious doubts about his own case. He offered to dismiss the case outright if our client agreed to take a lie-detector test at the Police Administration Building. When the client passed the test, the case was dismissed, and the District Attorney apologized to the client in court for putting him through the ordeal of felony prosecution.
This is the scariest but most meaningful position a defense attorney can face – a totally innocent client accused of a serious crime. Without a solid commitment to protecting the rights of every defendant, the plight of the wrongly accused would catch us off-guard. This is the kind of case that led me to serve as a Public Defender the past decade.
This case was a classic example of governmental overreaching in the arena of criminal jurisdiction. Several prosecutors in Racine County set their sights upon the issue of juvenile truancy – certainly a noble cause. However, one of its strategies was to criminally prosecute the parents of truant teenagers, without any information to suggest that those parents were neglectful or otherwise deficient.
Furthermore, prosecutors skewed the statute in question to charge these parents with one criminal count for every five days in which their children missed part of the school day.
My client in the above captioned case was a mother whose teenage son was out of control. She tried desperately to get him to go to school and he refused. She was a law abiding, peaceful citizen with a problem kid - and the state charged her with 9 counts of criminality, exposing her to lengthy confinement.
In response, I challenged the Constitutionality of the charges, and filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing strict vicarious criminal liability was unconstitutionally vague. The Circuit court denied my motion, but the possibility of appeal caused the prosecution to amend the 9 misdemeanor counts against my client to a civil forfeiture.
The resolution of this case changed how cases like it were viewed throughout Racine County. My efforts protected my client and other parents from being unjustly targeted in criminal court.
The defendant in this case was young girl who was beaten, imprisoned and sexually trafficked … When police stormed the home in which she was kept, the client did as she had been instructed to do by her captor – and ran from authorities. She was subsequently charged with Obstructing an officer.
Together with a Milwaukee Police Detective, the Assistant District Attorney and the Federal Prosecutor, we reached a resolution that would grant my client immunity from prosecution for any acts in connection with the confinement and sexual abuse.
I thought we had won the day. But I was stunned when my client told me that she couldn't testify against her abuser because she still feared him and still cared for him. … I visited my client every day to convince her to testify. …
Utterly terrified, she testified about the horrific abuse she endured. In the courtroom gallery were ten or twelve members of the pimp's family, cursing my client under their breath and shooting dirty looks at her. I sat in the front row so that she could see a friendly face in the courtroom. She had no other family or friends … a sad reminder of the isolation and need for attention that drove her into prostitution in the first place.
It was honestly refreshing to play a small part in her pimp's prosecution, while securing mercy for a client who truly deserved it.
This is the scariest but most meaningful position a defense attorney can face – a totally innocent client accused of a serious crime. – Paul J. Rifelj
List all instances in which you ran for elective office: None.
Judicial or non-partisan candidates that you have publicly endorsed in the last six years:
Rebecca Bradley – for State Supreme Court
Christopher Dee – for Milwaukee County Circuit Court
Michelle Ackerman Havas – for Milwaukee County Circuit Court
Laura Gramling-Perez – for Milwaukee County Circuit Court
Describe any additional involvement in professional or civic organizations, volunteer activities, service in a church or synagogue, or any other activities or hobbies that could be relevant or helpful to consideration of your application.
Volunteer instructor, Marquette University Mock Trial Team
Co-Founder of Annual Trivia Event to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association
Volunteer, Meadowbrook Church, setting up dinner for the poor
Frequent guest speaker at schools in the Milwaukee Area to discuss Criminal Law, including Marquette University, ITT Technical College, and Atlas Preparatory School.
Describe any significant pro bono legal work you have performed in your legal career: X
Why I want to be a judge – Commitment to the Rule of Law and its just application runs deeply within my family. My grandparents fled … Slovenia with the clothes on their backs after a Communist Dictator came into power and sought to have them executed. They languished as refugees in an Austrian camp for five years, waiting for a chance come to a country with a commitment to fair and impartial governance.
My father was born in that refugee camp. He was two years old when he arrived in Milwaukee. The better life that my grandparents dreamed of, and delivered to their children and grandchildren, is possible because of America's commitment to the Rule of Law.
I want to be of service to the community where I was born and raised, by continuing that commitment. That is why I want to become a Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge.
My career has been guided by a strong sense of service. I dedicated the first twelve years of my legal practice to protecting the rights of those who had no resources to afford legal counsel. I am proud of the work I have done, knowing that the presence of dedicated defense attorneys helps to preserve freedom for all citizens – not just criminal defendants.
I want to continue a career of service from the bench. I want to help make communities safer and families stronger, while making the courtroom a place of refuge where the people of Milwaukee can expect justice to prevail. And I will deliver justice by faithfully applying the laws as written.
Best United States or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last thirty years – Texas v. Johnson (1989)
In a 5-4 decision, the. United States Supreme Court overturned the defendant's criminal conviction for burning a United States Flag in protest. The Court held that burning a flag was political speech, which is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The majority in this case properly valued the original intent behind the First Amendment above their personal feelings regarding flag burning. The First Amendment clearly states that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech." Protection of political speech lies at the very core of the First Amendment …
To justify a restriction on political speech, Texas needed to demonstrate that it had a compelling state interest in prosecuting flag burning, and further show that it used narrowly tailored means to further that interest. … its argument rested on an ill-fated attempt to substitute a personal belief that the flag is too sacred to burn, the First Amendment’s unequivocal mandate that no symbol is too sacred to burn.
Compelled reverence of a political symbol, whatever that symbol may be, is not a compelling state interest. The original intent of the First Amendment placed no political ideas or symbols beyond the reach of dissent.
It was Justice Antonin Scalia who broke ranks from the conservative wing of the court to cast the swing vote striking down the Texas statute. He led the charge during oral argument, at one point questioning counsel whether it also had a compelling interest in protecting the symbolic integrity of the state flower.
I revere the United States flag. I fly it outside my home. When my family says grace at the dinner table, we thank God for the freedoms embodied by the flag. Those feelings aside, the First Amendment exists to protect the expression of those who feel the opposite way that I feel.
A decision on whether to strike down a law should have nothing to do with the law's importance or popularity. ...Quite the contrary – a law that is highly invasive and burdensome should require heightened scrutiny. – Rifelj
Worst United States or Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions in the last thirty years – National Federation of Independent Business et al. v. Sebelius (2012)
In Sebelius, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of the individual mandate to purchase health insurance within the Affordable Care Act
Congressional authority over an otherwise free people is limited to those powers that are specifically enumerated within Article 1 Section 8 of the United States Constitution. Nothing within that section empowers Congress compel citizens to engage in commerce which Congress deems favorable. …
In upholding the individual mandate, the court held that the congressional power to tax gave Congress the authority to issue the individual mandate because the penalty for violating the mandate is collected as a tax.
The taxing power was not intended to serve as a Trojan horse … and allowing it to legislate every aspect of our lives so long is the legislation wrapped as a tax.
Also distressing is the possibility that this law was upheld by the court in an effort to preserve the court's integrity, and not appear as "activist". A decision on whether to strike down a law should have nothing to do with the law's importance or popularity. A law like the Affordable Care Act should not be immunized from judicial oversight because of its girth. Quite the contrary – a law that is highly invasive and burdensome should require heightened scrutiny.
There will surely be a second individual mandate at some point in the future, and likely a third. A Congressional mandate to exercise, to eat more fiber, to do whatever Congress feels like can now be justified as long as the penalty for failure to conform is a tax.
The precedent set by Sebelius is an assault on the clear text of the Constitution's framework ….
Judicial philosophy – Strict Construction of the law, as written, with adherence to its original intent, is the most democratic form of judicial philosophy. As a judge, my primary responsibility would be to provide impartial application of the as enacted through the democratic process.
The judiciary is separate and ought to remain separate from the legislative branch of government. As such, judges should not legislate from the bench, nor should they impose their personal will above existing law. The courtroom is not the venue to decide which laws should exist. The courtroom is the venue to decide which do exist and how to faithfully enforce them.
Judicial philosophy also encompasses judicial demeanor. As a judge, I would strive to be respectful … patient and approachable. It has been my practice to bring a spirit of levity and lightheartedness to the workplace, and I would hope that my courtroom has that feeling.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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