Does a large caseload as an attorney make for a good judge?
His competitors say, “No so fast.”
Five attorneys and one Rock County court commissioner (who also is an attorney but does not practice) are running to replace retiring Judge James Welker. Tuesday’s primary election will narrow the field to two candidates. The candidates are Hoag, attorney Harry O’Leary, attorney and Janesville City Council member Tom McDonald, Court Commissioner Barbara McCrory, attorney Tod Daniel and attorney Mike Haakenson.
According to online Wisconsin court records, 353 cases filed in 2011 listed Hoag as the lead attorney. That is nearly four times more than the leading contenders, Daniel and Haakenson. O’Leary and McDonald filed fewer than 20 cases each.
McCrory didn’t file any cases, because she is not a practicing attorney. She works as a family court commissioner in Rock and Jefferson counties where she handles between 50 and 60 hearings in each county every month.
Hoag said the results indicate he is doing a good job as an attorney and would do a good job as judge.
“I think the numbers reflect a successful practice of law and a high demand for me to be an attorney for people,” Hoag said.
Hoag does a variety of trial work including divorce cases, criminal defense and traffic cases, he said. He works some of the criminal cases as a public defender. He also handles some cases that are not listed on online court records such as juvenile cases or cases involving termination of parental rights or court orders removing children from their parents’ homes.
The numbers are slightly elevated, he said, because some clients have multiple cases, particularly those clients whom he serves as a public defender. For example, Hoag said that as a public defender for one client he filed 10 cases in 2011, 12 in 2010 and three in 2009.
O’Leary said judges need more than a large number of trial cases in order to gain the experience to be a good judge. In fact, O’Leary said his goal is to keep his clients out of the courts.
The number of trial cases depends on an attorney’s practice, O’Leary said. His practice includes estate planning, probate, adoptions, elder law, business law and tax law, among other things, O’Leary said.
“I think I have a broad experience,” O’Leary said. “I’ve handled criminal cases. I know I can. I’ve done it, but I choose not to do it. That’s not the realm I wish to pursue as a private practitioner.”
McDonald also said the goal in his practice is to keep clients out of court. That benefits his client, other attorneys and the legal system, McDonald said.
Large numbers of cases do not necessarily indicate quality practice, he said.
“If someone does traffic citations and other simple things like that,” McDonald said. “How difficult or how complex is the matter that’s being handled in court?”
McDonald said he has enough courtroom experience to be judge.
“Ultimately the numbers show that I have been in court, and I have handled these civil matters,” McDonald said. “I’m not in court as much as the other candidates, but that is the nature of my practice. The first thing we try to do is keep people out of court.”
Haakenson works as a court-appointed guardian ad litem and handles a number of cases that do not appear in online court records. He is in court almost every day because that is where he likes to work, Haakenson said.
Haakenson said any new judge would have a considerable amount of learning to do. He thinks Rock County residents would want to vote for him because his courtroom experience will make the learning curve less steep.
“I like being in court. I feel comfortable being in court,” Haakenson said. “It’s a place I’m used to being. And, as far as experience goes, there’s an advantage to being in court every day.”
Daniel said the 91 cases filed in his name in 2011 represent a busy practice that handles cases with a degree of seriousness. Like McDonald, Daniel said large numbers of cases are not reflective of a quality legal practice.
“The problem with the way this system works is that a three-point speeding ticket and a first-degree homicide are both represented with a value of ‘one.’”
McCrory has said her experience as a court commissioner makes her the most qualified candidate for the job. She manages a court official’s calendar, makes oral and written decisions and does so in a timely fashion, she has said.
“I believe I have a lot of very good experience,” McCrory said. “I’ve been doing judicial work for the last 10 years (as court commissioner), and I think I have the experience to take it to the next level as judge.”
BY THE NUMBERS
These represent a portion of the cases tried in 2011 by five of the six candidates for Rock County judge, according to Wisconsin online court records. Some cases, such as juvenile delinquency or parental rights termination, are not public and are therefore not included in this count.
Candidate Barbara McCrory does not work as an attorney but as a family court commissioner in Rock and Jefferson counties. She is responsible for adjudicating many of the entry-level family court cases in order to clear the calendar for the judges’ assigned to cases.
Since she started working in Jefferson County in August 2009, McCrory has heard 1,599 hearings or about 52 per month, according to Wisconsin online court records compiled by the Jefferson County Court Clerk’s Office. Those hearings represented 1,103 cases, McCrory said.
In 2011 in Rock County, 1,104 hearings were set on McCrory's calendar, according to Wisconsin online court records compiled by the District Five Court Administrator's Office.
In March, McCrory is scheduled to handle 49 hearings in Rock County and 58 in Jefferson County, according to online court records.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Janesville League of Women Voters has compiled links to local media coverage of the candidates for Rock County Judge as well as some of the candidates’ written responses. Visit lwvjvl.org to find information about:
- JATV’s rebroadcasts of the league’s judicial forum Jan. 25.
- Links to YouTube videos of the same forum. The league’s website features a handy list of the timestamps for the questions asked during the forum. Viewers can choose to watch responses to the questions that most interest them.
- Written answers to questions.
- Links to Local Vision TV’s “Meet the Candidates” series as well as video from the Rock County Bar Association’s Jan. 24 judicial candidate forum.
- You also can visit gazettextra.com/elections to find stories The Gazette has written so far about the judicial race and others.