With a just ruling that kept an offender out of prison, a court case revealed that the qualities required of local judges go far beyond being on the popular side of political issues
Ozaukee County voters chose a circuit court judge last spring in a bruising contest that saw raw politics trumping the usual judicial election issues of experience, knowledge of the law and philosophy of the administration of justice. The challenger ran on a single negative issue—that the incumbent, as a private citizen, had signed a petition calling for a recall election for Wisconsin governor and was therefore no longer fit to serve as judge. Joe Voiland, a lawyer with little trial experience, easily defeated Tom Wolfgram, who in 19 years on the circuit court bench had earned a statewide reputation for judicial excellence.
Regardless of whom they supported in the election, the citizens of Ozaukee County should now be hoping that Judge Voiland proves to be a wise and effective jurist and that if he runs for a second term it will be not on partisan political issues but on his record of service on the branch two bench.
If a reminder that judicial elections are too important to be decided on emotional political issues was needed, it was provided last week by a case that showcased with high-definition clarity the role of local judges in ensuring that justice reaches the troubled and powerless among us, no matter their guilt before the law.
The example was provided by another Ozaukee County circuit judge, Paul Malloy, who prevented a classic miscarriage of justice by refusing to be persuaded by a prosecutor and a state bureaucrat to send a 50-year-old mentally-ill Port Washington resident to prison for painting graffiti on the Ozaukee Interurban Trail while on probation for a similar offense.
Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Sisley asked Malloy to follow the recommendation of a state parole agent and sentence Dale R. Ziegler, who had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for the graffiti offense, to one to two years in state prison plus two years of extended prohibition.
Malloy minced no words in rejecting the outlandishly severe sentence recommendation: “We’re talking about sending someone to state prison for graffiti. Prisons are reserved for people who earned their way there. A person with cognitive disabilities who becomes a town nuisance by spray painting the bike trail...I have a hard time correlating that behavior with prison.”
The job of prosecutors is to get lawbreakers convicted and punished. Concern for the perpetrators is not high on their list of priorities. (Probation agents, on the other hand, are expected to consider the offender’s interest as well as the public’s. What the prison-for-graffiti agent was thinking is anyone’s guess.)
Prosecutors tend to be zealous in carrying out their mission; sometimes overzealous. Judges are the counterbalance. Had Malloy taken the easy way and rubber-stamped the sentence recommendation, the case would have closed with a failure of justice.
Though Ziegler was found competent to stand trial after a psychological exam, his mental disabilities have been well documented. “You’re competent,” Malloy told him in court, “but not by much.”
He was arrested last year for painting references to Hitler and Ku Klux Klan on the bike trail and the parking lot of St. Peter of Alcantara Church. The district attorney chose the harsh alternative of charging Ziegler with felonies for the latter on the ground that it was criminal damage to religious property.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine months in jail, but was released after serving 30 days, contingent on probation rules requiring him to stay away from the bike trail and church parking lot and not possess graffiti materials.
He violated those conditions earlier this year with the bike trail painting, and has been in the county jail ever since.
And there he will stay for a while. Instead of prison, Malloy sentenced him to another year in the less threatening environment of the county jail and said the court would ask the county Human Services Department to find a group home for Ziegler to move into after serving his sentence.
The group home “sounds like the best idea,” Malloy told him. “You don’t belong in prison.”
What it really sounds like is justice. Finding judges who know how to recognize it and dispense it has nothing to do with politics.