By Ana Martinez-OrtizWhen it comes to elections, deciding who to vote for takes some consideration. In order to help sway voters one way or another, candidates hold debates, forums and so on. This past week, the candidates for the Circuit Court (Branch 5) gathered for a public forum at the Milwaukee Bar Association, 747 N. Broadway.
The three candidates for the court are as follows: Brett Blomme, Paul Dedinsky and Zack Whitney.
For an hour, candidates answered questions from the audience. The topics ranged from their ability and qualifications to be judge as well as past experience and temperament.
Each candidate listed why they are qualified to be judge. Dedinsky was a prosecutor in the Milwaukee DA’s office, worked on criminal cases and in the children’s court system. He also worked with victims of domestic violence and with young people.
Whitney, who attended Marquette University, worked on the seventh circuit court of appeals. After doing that for a year, he applied to become an assistant district attorney.
“I worked in the district attorney’s office for eight years on primary domestic violence and gun violence [cases],” he said.
Whitney estimated that he did about 100 jury trials in addition to his civil and court trials.
Blomme, who worked as a state public defender, received experience both in and outside of the courtroom. He had over 150 cases a year during his five-year tenure. His cases dealt with issues such as mental health, criminal and child support. Currently, he’s on the board of zoning appeals in Milwaukee.
Candidates were asked what steps they would take to address mass incarceration in their courtroom.
Mass incarceration is a national issue that is especially evident in Milwaukee. Whitney said Wisconsin has nearly 25,000 inmates in the prison system, which is nearly double the amount that neighboring states such as Minnesota have.
It’s an issue that needs to be addressed by the executive and legislature, but judges can do something too, he said. Part of the problem is reincarceration, in which a majority of prisoners are returned to prison due to a violation of their parole, Whitney said. While a violation is beyond the judge’s control, Whitney said judges can limit supervision where appropriate or withhold sentencing so that the person can be brought back before a judge who can decide their fate.
Blomme said that mass incarceration is a key part of his campaign and that he is interested in adopting the ACLU’s initiatives that aim to reduce the prison population by 50% over the next several years. While he stated that other departments likewise need to reform, he said that as judge there’s certain steps he can take.
If elected, Blomme said he would hold every person in his court room accountable, including law enforcement. As a public defender, he’s seen judges bend to the will of law enforcement, which should not be the case. He also plans to examine jail time for concurrent sentencing.
Dedinksy recalled in the nineties the infamous war on drugs. In Milwaukee, almost 1 in 6 inmates had been prosecuted by the drug unit, Dedinsky said. That caused prison inmates to skyrocket, he said.
“This has been an age-old problem,” Dedinsky said. “This is not something new.”
Dedinsky said his plan to tackle mass incarceration begins with education. He also plans to support impoverished families and to tackle the issue of domestic violence. This means working with the education system and organizations such as faith groups to help address the oppression.
During this election, one of the big topics has been the residency of each candidate. The state constitution states that to be a qualified judge in a certain jurisdiction that the person must be a qualified voter in that district at the time of appointment.
Whitney in particular has been leading the discussion on this topic as Blomme’s family lives in Madison and Dedinsky has resided in Waukesha. Each candidate received the opportunity to clarify where they live.
Blomme said that he lives in Milwaukee and owns a home here in addition to paying property tax here.
His family lives in Dane County, because his spouse who works at the University of Wisconsin Madison receives health benefits. Blomme explained that his son has special needs and the family needs health benefits to ensure his quality of life.
“The reality is that I live here and I’m a qualified electorate,” he said.
Dedinsky said that he is the only candidate to have been born and raised in Milwaukee. He said that he has a residence in Whitefish Bay. Dedinsky said that he spends the majority of his time at home or at judicial conferences for over 98% of the time. In other words, Dedinsky spends a majority of his time in Milwaukee.
In response, Whitney said that being judge is a middle-class job which pays money that should be invested back into Milwaukee, where renting has become the norm. Given that the families of both candidates reside outside of Milwaukee suggests that the money will not be invested back into the city.
Whitney said that he has lived exclusively in Milwaukee for the past 20 years and stressed his investment in the city.
The candidates were asked to describe their demeanor in the courtroom. Dedinsky said he strives to be balanced and welcoming in his courtroom. Whitney said that he is accessible to anyone seeking his help. Blomme said that he is a bridge builder who strives to resolve conflict.
The primary election will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 18. To learn more about the respective candidates, consider viewing their websites.