Hoag, McCrory competing to fill position of retiring Judge Jim Welker
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Jack Hoag and Barbara McCrory campaign to be Rock County Circuit Court Judge. WCLO's Jon Meerdink reports.
JANESVILLE Judge Jim Welker spent much of late summer 1988 on a stairwell in the former Rock County Courthouse in Beloit.
He was sworn in as judge Aug. 1 that year, and he found himself regularly seeking help from Judge J. Richard Long, whose office was connected to Welker’s by a staircase.
“The first year on the job, I was running up and down those stairs with a great deal of frequency,” Welker said.
Welker will retire this year, and two Rock County legal professionals are running to replace him. Rock and Jefferson county Family Court Commissioner Barbara McCrory faces Janesville attorney Jack Hoag.
They survived a six-way primary in February, and one of them will be elected Tuesday to a six-year term.
Although the office of circuit court judge is an elected one in Wisconsin, judges more often than not are appointed for a short time and then elected to subsequent terms.
Rock County is no exception. Of the county’s seven judges, only two—Welker and Alan Bates—were elected without first being appointed by a governor. Bates was elected in 2004.
That means voters don’t get a lot of opportunities to pick new judges. Nor do most people see judges on the job.
How should voters measure candidates for judge?
Janesville attorney George Steil Jr. said the best way to get informed before Tuesday’s election is to ask someone who knows.
“This can be from an attorney standpoint, from a judicial standpoint or from anyone with a position at the courthouse where they have the ability to observe on a regular basis,” Steil said.
Steil spent eight years as an appointed member of Gov. Tommy Thompson’s Judicial Selection Advisory Council. Each governor selects a council that is tasked with recommending people to fill vacancies if judges retire or leave the bench in mid-term.
Welker probably wasn’t alone when he needed help early in his judicial career, Steil said. It’s a challenge to learn how to handle the job of judge. The best way to be ready is by having a wide variety of experience as an attorney prior to the election, he said.
“It’s very difficult for a judge to learn on the job because a judge doesn’t have the ability during a trial to get assistance from others,” Steil said. “The judge has to make those decisions on the spot.”
Breadth of experience was the leading factor Steil and his colleagues considered when recommending judges for appointment to vacant benches during Thompson’s governorship.
But it wasn’t the only factor, he said.
The committee also considered a candidate’s reputation in the community for fairness and demeanor.
“It’s important that a judge’s decisions not only be right but that they be accepted and respected,” Steil said.
Welker, who wrote a letter to The Gazette editor endorsing Hoag, said the most important characteristic for making a good judge is a “really good” work ethic. Experience with making a budget, meeting a payroll and managing an office would get a new judge off to a good start, Welker said.
“I have kind of jokingly said a couple times that they ought to write into the statute that a candidate has to file last year’s tax return to show you’re taking a pay cut,” Welker said.
Rock County Bar Association President Tim Lindau stood by what he said in January when the bar released results of a poll that asked attorneys whether each of the six candidates was qualified for the job.
Every attorney gives a different weight to the characteristics he or she sees as important in a judge candidate, Lindau said. The poll is subjective, Lindau said.
Of the attorneys polled at the time, 82 said Hoag was qualified for the job, 12 said he was unqualified and nine had no opinion. When considering McCrory, 92 said she was qualified, four said she was not qualified and eight had no opinion.
For Lindau, competency, temperament, patience and demeanor top the list of important job skills for judges, he said.
“Commitment and work ethic are up there, too,” Lindau said. “A strong work ethic is important so that judges are willing to get their hands dirty and research issues independently and not just wait for counsel to file briefs.”
Lindau does not have a set opinion about whether a professional committee or the voting public is better suited to pick a judge. Both methods have benefits, he said. A committee might bring professional experience to the job, but voters know their community, he said.
“I’ve gone back and forth,” Lindau said. “It’s hard to argue in favor of taking away an opportunity for people to vote.
“The electorate by and large get it right.”