Milwaukee County circuit court judge Rebecca Dallet is touting her experience and values as she competes in the Feb. 20 primary against two opponents.
The race pits one conservative - Sauk County circuit court judge Michael Screnock - against two liberals - attorney Tim Burns and Dallet. With no other conservatives to divide the vote, no one expects Screnock to be eliminated, so the primary likely will come down to an elimination match between Dallet and Burns.
For her part, Dallet says she has the values and the experience to represent Wisconsin, and, what's more, she's the only candidate who does.
Dallet was elected to the Milwaukee County circuit court in 2008 and re-elected in 2014, after serving as presiding court commissioner. She previously worked for 11 years as a prosecutor, in both state and federal court.
"I've spent more than two decades fighting to ensure justice for the people of our state, and now I am ready to bring my experience and commitment to working for Wisconsin's families on the state Supreme Court," Dallet said when she announced. "I have the right experience to return independence and balance to what has become an increasingly partisan Supreme Court."
Before winning election to the bench, Dallet says she worked as a prosecutor to put sexual predators behind bars in Ozaukee, Washington, and Milwaukee counties, and prosecuted drug, gun, and violent crime cases in partnership with the U.S. Attorney's office.
Dallet also points to her experience serving as presiding judge for both the domestic violence and misdemeanor courts, and has heard cases in gun court, homicide/sensitive crimes court, drug court, and civil court, her campaign states.
Her campaign says Dallet trains judges nationwide as a faculty member for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and teaches in Wisconsin as associate dean of the Wisconsin Judicial College. She is a former adjunct professor of law at Marquette University Law School.
Dallet also serves as president of the Milwaukee Trial Judges Association, and as secretary of the Association for Women Lawyers, her campaign states. She formerly served as a member of the Supreme Court Judicial Education Committee, and was recognized as a Women in the Law Honoree by the Wisconsin Law Journal during her first term on the bench.
The judge graduated summa cum laude from both Case Western Reserve University School of Law and Ohio State University, her campaign states. In the community, she has won the Pasch Meritorious Service Award for her work with youth, and received recognition from the White House Project's Women Rule! program.
She is married to Brad Dallet, who is a partner at Husch Blackwell, and they have two daughters in public school and a third daughter in college.
Why she is running
Dallet says that, over the course of the more than 20 years she has spent in Wisconsin courtrooms fighting to ensure justice for the people of the state, she's gained the experience the state needs, "right now and in this moment," to protect the values Wisconsinites share.
"I know the challenges and the problems Wisconsin families face," she says on her website. "I have spent my career, first as a prosecutor, and now as a judge, working to make our community safer. I've overseen both civil and criminal courts - making tough decisions to send violent criminals away, and rendered compassionate verdicts to give people a second chance."
In the courtroom, Dallet says she sees the challenges Wisconsinites face every day.
"I see moms like me working two jobs, but still not able to make ends meet," she said. "I see families losing their homes when a family member gets sick and the medical bills stack up. I see victims of violent crime, especially in our poorest neighborhoods, struggling to find a way as guns, drugs, and gangs devastate their community. I see people trying to get their lives back on track, but stuck in a criminal justice system that needs reform. And I see an opioid crisis which requires all of us to work together to find solutions."
Those challenges demand change in the judicial system, she says.
"Our courts and our election system need to be held to the highest standard of independence," she said. "We need a strong recusal rule, and we need judges who will ensure that bias is removed from the courtroom. It's time for the era of special interest influence to end."
She says judges are challenged every single day, too: to weigh the facts, examine the evidence, and deliver a decision.
"And while there is so much at stake here in Wisconsin, inexperience is not an option if we want to protect our values at the highest level," she said. "I am prepared to fight and represent our values on day one. I'm excited to be on this journey."
Dallet more fully laid out her judicial philosophy and her goals for serving on the high court in a speech last year to the Democratic Party's state convention.
For one thing, she told the Democrats, she got into the race because she wants a better Wisconsin for everyone, and she said part of that was coming together for a better, stronger justice system.
"And like you, I am deeply concerned about what's happened to our Supreme Court," she said. "And I don't accept what's happened as inevitable. The division. The rancor. The rejection of our progressive history. We used to take pride in our clean government, our honest leaders. We used to take pride in being able to come together."
Now, Dallet said, things are different.
"And nowhere more than on our Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is riven by factional fighting," she said. "The right versus the left. And like our broader politics, it's the wealthy versus the poor. Cities versus rural communities."
In recent years, Dallet said, the court has refused to pass rules to prevent influence by wealthy donors.
"They've taken radical positions that don't seem to be supported by the law," she said. "There's even reports of physical fighting between justices."
It's time for a change, she said.
"Some will tell you that the solution to partisan judges on the right is to elect more partisan judges - just from the other side," she said. "I have a different view of the world in that I think judges really do need to be independent."
That's not to say she doesn't have strong Wisconsin values, Dallet said.
"I believe in equality," she said. "I think we need to put the worst violent offenders away, but I also think that as a society we need to incarcerate fewer people and make our justice system work better. You can count on me to follow the law and that if I'm elected to be a Supreme Court justice, that I will come to work every day to seek justice."
All that aside, Dallet said she didn't think the answer was just to say to the Democratic audience that judges need to vote like partisan Democrats to counteract partisan Republican judges.
"If we fall into the trap of politicizing the third branch, we turn our back on our true progressive history," she said. "We need independent judges who follow the law and decide every case based on the Wisconsin and U.S. constitutions and the law. We bring our own experience in the courtroom to these cases - the law is a living thing. But that's not the same as pre-deciding outcomes on one side or another, or to promise you I'll be just another politician, just to try and win an election."
Dallet said her best days in a courtroom were when she was protecting abused kids and women.
"I prosecuted predators and abusers," she said. "I know what it means to fight for a victim of gun violence."
Her proudest day of all in the courtroom was when the federal court finally made all people equal under the law when it comes to love and marriage, Dallet said.
"I'd been out of town, and as soon as I got home, I grabbed my robe and headed down to the courthouse," she said. "I ended up being part of a lot of happy couples' special day... and part of history."
Dallet has a cache of more than 300 endorsements ranging from county board supervisors and other local officials to a raft of judges - most of them from Milwaukee and Dane counties - and 14 lawmakers.
Former justice Louis Butler has endorsed Dallet.
"As a former member of the high court, I know what it takes to do this important job," Butler said. "The court needs a strong, experienced, balanced, and independent justice to serve the people of this great state. Judge Dallet has significant courtroom experience, a deep understanding of the law and our constitutional rights as citizens, and a record of standing up for Wisconsin values and working families."
Judge Lisa Stark of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals District III is also backing Dallet.
"I strongly endorse judge Rebecca Dallet for the Wisconsin Supreme Court," Stark said. "I am continually impressed with judge Dallet's passion for the law and her performance on the bench. Her significant judicial experience, service with distinction and integrity, intelligence, and independence make her the best candidate for our court."
Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm is on board, too, and, in northern Wisconsin, so are Oneida County circuit court judge Michael Bloom and retired judge Robert Kinney.
Sexual assault controversy
Despite all the plaudits, Dallet is not without controversy. This past month the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that in 2011 Dallet sentenced a man to two years in prison and five years of extended supervision for attempted sexual assault of an 8-year-old girl.
He could have received a 20-year sentence, the paper reported.
Critics say that's mighty light given her claim that her best days are when she is protecting abused children. Still, as the Journal Sentinel reported, the sentence was the one recommended by prosecutors.
Her opponent, Tim Burns, has also pointed to a report that a Wisconsin appellate court overturned Dallet's circuit court decision in which an African American was unlawfully searched for standing at a gas station for five minutes in Milwaukee.
Burns's campaign said Dallet's campaign offered responses that were profoundly disturbing for a Supreme Court candidate and that largely dismissed the rights of Wisconsinites under a disturbing common theme of 'the results justify the means.'
"It's disturbing to see a Milwaukee County judge seeking a Supreme Court seat, who either lacks a fundamental understanding of the protections outlined in the U.S. constitution or simply doesn't care," said Amanda Brink, campaign manager for Burns for Wisconsin. "Wisconsinites - black, white, brown, male and female - have a right to stand in a public location without fear of pat down."
In the case, the appeals court harshly upbraided Dallet for agreeing with police that they could legally search an African American man who was simply hanging out by a convenience store.
According to the decision, police claimed the man provoked reasonable suspicion because he was wearing dark clothing in a high-crime neighborhood on Milwaukee's north side and, police argued, "subjects (that) are usually dressed like that ... are either committing armed robberies or ... dealing drugs."
Dallet sided with law enforcement, but then-appeals court judge Ralph Fine disagreed.
"With limited exceptions, people have a right in this country to go about their lives, to stand around, to hang out - all without having to submit to police interrogation," Fine wrote.
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.
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