Motivated by Voiland, judicial candidates vow to bring change

Four vying to succeed controversial judge tout experience heading into next week’s primary

SITTING IN WHAT was once Ozaukee County’s courtroom, the four candidates running in next week’s primary election for Branch II circuit court judge, (from left) Angela Foy, Mark Larson, Steve Cain and James Wawrzyn, participated in a League of Women Voters of Ozaukee County forum in the boardroom of the county’s historic courthouse in downtown Port Washington Monday. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

The four lawyers vying for Ozaukee County Circuit judge, three of whom said they felt compelled to run because of the acrimony that marked the first term of the man they are seeking to replace — Judge Joseph Voiland — told a candidate forum audience this week that the county needs a judge who is fair, compassionate and respects litigants and coworkers alike.

Facing off in next Tuesday’s primary election, the candidates, all of whom participated in a League of Women Voters of Ozaukee County forum at the historic courthouse in downtown Port Washington Monday, are Angela Foy, Mark Larson, Steve Cain and James Wawrzyn. 

Foy, Larson and Cain are from Cedarburg. Wawrzyn is a Mequon resident.

Voiland, whose single term in office will be remembered for the investigations of the Ozaukee County court system he prompted with allegations of wrongdoing, is not running for re-election. He was elected to the Branch II bench in 2013, upsetting veteran judge Tom Wolfgram with a campaign that focused on Wolfgram’s decision to sign the Gov. Scott Walker recall petition.

Rather than politics, this election is focused on experience and qualifications.

Cain, 44, said he is “uniquely qualified” for the job by virtue of the fact he has served as Mid-Moraine Municipal Court judge since being elected to the post in 2009 and is an attorney specializing in municipal law and general litigation with the Cedarburg firm Stippich, Selin & Cain. “I believe being a guardian of civil rights is my role,” he said. 

Foy, 40, who has practiced in several areas of the law and now specializes in family law with the Milwaukee law firm Halling & Cayo, said the breadth of her experience is what qualifies her for the bench.

“I can’t tell you how many hearings and trials I’ve had in my career,” Foy said, adding that lawyers with substantial experience learn what makes some judges better than others.

A critic of Voiland, Foy said, “I can’t sit by and not take action when I see how much better we can be.”

Larson, 57, a partner with the Milwaukee law firm Gutglass, Erickson, Bonnville & Larson who specializes in medical malpractice, has been practicing law for more than 32 years. 

Alluding to the controversy sparked by Voiland, Larson said he felt compelled to run for judge.

“The reason I’m doing this is out of a sense of responsibility to this community,” he said. “I’m in a position in my life where I have a lot of experience to offer. I’m in a position to address a problem.”

Wawrzyn, too, said he was motived to run for judge by the state of affairs in the Ozaukee County justice system.

“A couple of years ago I started to see headlines about what was happening at the Ozaukee County Justice Center,” he said. “Something was off.

“My thought as a concerned voter ... was that perhaps it’s time for a fresh start.”

A lawyer with von Briesen & Roper specializing in business litigation, risk management and corporate matters, Wawrzyn, 40, noted he has previously worked in all three branches of Wisconsin government, including on criminal justice and homeland security policy for Govs. Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum. 

He described himself as an outsider who is not beholden to “courthouse constituencies.”

When asked what is the most serious issues facing the justice system, Larson said it is drug and alcohol abuse and the crimes related to it.

“We must come up with a better way to deal with substance abuse,” he said. “There’s an alcohol issue in this community.”

Cain said that in addition to drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness is an issue the justice system must deal with. He said as a municipal court judge, he deals with juvenile offenders who need support in addition to punitive incentives to avoid trouble.

“More often than not, we need to be cheerleaders, especially for young people in the criminal justice system, in addition to using the carrot and the stick,” Cain said. 

He noted the Ozaukee County Criminal Justice Collaborating Committee, of which he is a member, has explored the idea of creating a drug court, a concept he would like to pursue along with services to help those battling addiction.

Foy agreed that mental illness is a problem facing the court system. Wawrzyn said juvenile justice is a “pressing issue.”

On the issue of expungement, Larson and Foy said they would use the power of a judge to remove a criminal conviction from a person’s record only in rare circumstances because it’s important to maintain a record of criminal behavior.

“Expungement can be appropriate, but only in very narrow circumstances,” Foy said. “There’s a reason why criminal records should be out there.”

Cain, however, noted that “17-year-olds can screw up” and end up saddled with criminal convictions that, without the option of expungement, can haunt them for the rest of their lives, particularly when it comes to finding a meaningful job.

“People go on CCAP and discriminate against people (with criminal records) all the time,” he said, referring to Wisconsin’s online court database. “I think expungement is a great tool in the right situations.”

When asked whether judges should be elected or appointed, the candidates said the current system of electing judges works, and this race is proof of that.

“Our county needed a change,” Foy said, and that’s what the county will get in this election.

Like Foy, Larson said he entered the race before Voiland declared he would not seek a second term.

“I was also an early candidate because there was a problem that needed to be fixed,” he said. “Then the incumbent realized he was facing serious challenges and decided not to run.”

Candidates were also asked about using the term conservative in a non-partisan judicial race and what the term means to them.

“I think of family values, of working hard and trying to do the best you can,” Foy said. 

Larson said, “I’m a contradiction in terms. I have an NRA sticker on my Prius.”

To him, conservative means being predictable and stable, which are “hallmarks of a good judge.”

But Cain described the term as a “buzzword or dog whistle” that can be misleading in nonpartisan judicial races.

“I think candidates need to be very cautious about how we use these terms, especially in campaign literature,” he said. 

Wawrzyn took exception to that.

“I use the term conservative on my website. To characterize that as a dog whistle seems a stretch to me,” Wawrzyn said, adding that the term as it pertains to him means he would apply the law as it is written.

When asked if there’s room for improvement in the Ozaukee County justice system, the candidates agreed there is. 

“The events of the last couple of years highlight that there is room for improvement,” Wawrzyn said. “A key aspect of my judicial philosophy is to treat everyone professionally and with respect.”

Foy said, “There’s always room for improvement. I’m running because I think I can improve things.”

The key, Cain said, is for judges to be humble and avoid the arrogance that lawyers describe as “black robe syndrome.”

The two candidates who receive the most votes in the Tuesday, Feb. 19, primary election will advance to the April 2 general election. The winner of that election will begin a six-year term on Aug. 1.

 

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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