Women in Wisconsin Law: Olga Bennett

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Category: Feminism, Legal History, Legal Profession, Public, Wisconsin Court System
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This is the second part of a three part series on Women in Wisconsin Law.

Although women were admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in 1879, it would be over one hundred years until the state’s first elected female county judge.  In 1970, Olga Bennett, a native of Vernon County, was the first woman elected and sworn in as a county judge in Wisconsin.

Bennett was born on May 5, 1908, in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Education played an important role throughout Bennett’s life.  In 1925 she graduated from Viroqua High School, and in 1928, she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Wisconsin.  After taking time following her undergraduate studies to work at a local bank, she returned to her studies four years later.  After spending a semester at the Madison Business School, Bennett enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison, Wisconsin.  In 1935, she graduated from law school and was admitted to the state bar.

Upon graduating, Bennett served as a law clerk for State Supreme Court Justice John D. Wickham for five years.  Following this clerkship, she went into business with her father, who was also an attorney.  Together they ran the Bennett and Bennett law firm.  Before being elected to serve as a judge, Bennett held various positions in the legal community, including serving as the first female city attorney of Viroqua.

Although one might have expected that a larger county in the state, such as Madison or Milwaukee, would have been the first to elect a female county judge, it was small Vernon County with a population of only 28,000 that holds this title.  In April 1969, Bennett ran and was elected to the bench in Vernon County (courthouse pictured above at left), defeating incumbent County Judge Larry Sieger who was appointed by the governor in 1968.  In 1970, she took the oath of office and became the second woman to serve as a judge in Wisconsin.   Read more »




Chicago, New York Heading in Opposite Directions on Crime; Where Does Milwaukee Stand?

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Milwaukee, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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To judge by some of the political rhetoric last fall, violent crime must be surging in our nation’s cities. Is that true? The answer may depend on which city you are talking about, and which neighborhood within that city.

Consider the contrast between Chicago and New York. The Windy City had about 762 homicides in 2016, while the Big Apple had just 334. The difference is shocking, especially when you consider that New York has three times Chicago’s population.

To some extent, the contrasting figures from 2016 reflect longstanding trends. Although murders did spike in Chicago last year, New York has been doing better than Chicago on this score for a long time. The two cities had essentially identical per capita homicide rates in the late 1980s, but New York’s fell much faster and further than Chicago’s in the 1990s. New York has maintained a wide advantage ever since.

Still, the dramatic widening of that advantage in 2016 should be of great concern to Chicagoans. The chart below indicates the trends in recent years, based on FBI data. Note that the two cities moved in sync from 2013 through 2015: homicides down the first year, basically unchanged the next, and then up a little in 2015. However, in 2016, even as Chicago’s homicides shot up, New York’s dropped back down to where they had been in 2013 and 2014.

One should not get the sense, however, that one faces a dramatically elevated risk of violence throughout the Windy City.   Read more »




U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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Ringing in the new year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its data on prisoners in the United States in 2015. After rising consistently for about four decades, the U.S. prison population (state and federal combined) peaked at a little over 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the population has declined steadily, but very slowly. For 2015, the total was a little over 1.5 million, or about 35,000 less than 2014. The continued reductions are encouraging, but must be kept in perspective: the population remains many times above its historic norms. The current rate of 458 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents is over four times greater than the long-term rate of about 100 per 100,000 from before the imprisonment boom. We are still very much in the era of mass incarceration.

The Wisconsin numbers continue to be lower than the national norms, but are moving in the opposite direction. At yearend 2015, Wisconsin’s prison population numbered 22,975, up 1.7 percent from 2014. This amounts to 377 prisoners per 100,000. By comparison, Minnesota’s rate was just 196 per 100,000.

Here are a few additional observations:   Read more »




ACS Panel Explains Voting Rights Litigation in Wisconsin

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Category: Civil Rights, Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, Election Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Marquette Law School, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Speakers at Marquette, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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img_5794-meOn October 20, I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion at the Law School devoted to Voting Rights Litigation in Wisconsin.  The event was co-sponsored by the Marquette University Law School Student Chapter of the American Constitution Society and the Milwaukee Chapter of the American Constitution Society (ACS). A crowd of approximately 60 persons witnessed a lively presentation on the right to vote under the U.S. Constitution, recent legislation in Wisconsin that places burdens on the ability of some people to vote in our State, and the status of litigation in the federal courts challenging these state laws.

The event began with a welcome from the Chair of the Milwaukee Chapter of the ACS, Attorney Craig Mastantuono.  Attorney Mastantuono began with a description of the mission of the American Constitution Society and the benefits of membership.  He also noted the excellent timing of the day’s event, given the attention currently being given to the integrity of the American voting system.  Then Attorney Mastantuono introduced the Mayor of Milwaukee, the Honorable Tom Barrett.

Mayor Barrett began his remarks by providing the Marquette University law students in attendance with a bit of career advice: namely, the importance of being nice to your colleagues in the workplace.  Turning to topic of the federal judiciary, Mayor Barrett criticized lawmakers who impose litmus tests on judicial appointees, in a misguided attempt to ensure that there is “only one type of thinking in our court system.”  Mayor Barrett also expressed his disappointment in the fact that Wisconsin is no longer a national leader in ensuring access to the ballot, and criticized recent state laws that have made it more difficult to vote in the City of Milwaukee.  Finally, while he touted the benefits of early voting as a means of improving ballot access, the Mayor explained that there are limits to the City’s ability to expand the early voting process due to the City’s interest in maintaining a well-administered voting process. Read more »




“On the Issues”: Former Avery Attorney Criticizes Criminal Justice System

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Public, Speakers at Marquette, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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Nine months ago, Dean Strang’s life changed. A well-known criminal defense attorney from Madison, he had been involved in cases that attracted public attention, especially the murder trial a decade ago of Steven Avery, who was accused of murdering a freelance photographer, Teresa Halbach, in 2005 in Manitowoc County.  The case attracted attention especially because it came two years after Avery was exonerated and freed after serving 18 years for a previous, unrelated murder. Strang and Jerry Buting, a Waukesha attorney, defended Avery in a trial that ended with Avery being convicted in 2007.

But nothing that happened at that time or in connection with any other case he had worked on prepared Strang for the impact on his life when a Netflix series, “Making a Murderer,” began running in December 2015 and became an international sensation. The case went into great detail in documenting the Avery case. It was widely regarded as supporting the argument that Avery was unfairly convicted.

Strang and Buting found themselves the centers of enormous attention. “It’s sort of like Jerry and I had been handed a microphone,” Strang said at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Monday.  “Now, what are you going to do with the microphone?”   Read more »




Strong Support for Marijuana Legalization in Law School Poll, But Results for Other Drugs Harder to Interpret

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Marquette Law School Poll, Milwaukee, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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In the Marquette Law School Poll conducted earlier this month, fifty-nine percent of registered Wisconsin voters agreed that marijuana “should be fully legalized and regulated like alcohol.” Only thirty-nine percent disagreed.

Support for legalization in Wisconsin follows the recent decisions to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012, and in Oregon and Alaska in 2014. Nationally, support for legalization has grown steadily since the early 1990s and finally crossed the fifty-percent threshold in 2013. (On the local level, the Public Policy Forum published a thoughtful assessment of the costs of marijuana enforcement in Milwaukee earlier this year.)

In the Law School Poll, respondents were asked which arguments for legalization they found most convincing.

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Doing away with deference?

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Category: Environmental Law, Public, Water Law, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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Legislative bodies often delegate significant authority to administrative agencies.  In the course of its work, an agency must reach legal conclusions about how to interpret and apply a statute it administers.  Most agencies employ attorneys for just that purpose.  When an agency’s legal interpretation is challenged, federal and state courts commonly defer to the agency in recognition to the agency’s subject-matter expertise and experience.  gavelFederal courts use the well-known Chevron[1]standard, analyzing first whether Congress has “directly spoken to the precise question at issue”; if it has, the court must give effect to that Congressional intent.  But if the statute is silent or ambiguous, the court defers to the agency interpretation if it is “based on a permissible construction of the statute,” even if the court would have reached a different outcome.  Wisconsin courts take a similarly deferential approach to reviewing agency legal interpretations.

Without the benefit of reliance on an agency’s interpretation of such specialized questions, courts would have to overcome “lack of training and expertise, lack of time, [and] lack of staff assistance. . . .”[2]  In the environmental context, federal courts have therefore resisted calls to inject themselves into the day to day management of natural resources, and have avoided becoming “forestmasters,” “roadmasters,” “fishmasters,” “watermasters,” and “rangemasters;” instead, they have deferred to the agencies created for those purposes.[3]

Over the years, however, some jurists have questioned whether this deferential approach straitjackets reviewing courts, sapping their power in favor of unelected administrative agency representatives.  Inspired by those concerns, a bill currently pending in the Wisconsin Legislature, A.B. 582, would eliminate judicial deference to agency legal interpretations in particular contexts.  To put it mildly, this would be a major development in Wisconsin administrative law and would deeply change the relationship and relative balance of power between agencies and reviewing courts in the state.

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Transparency in Government Includes the Judiciary

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Category: Judges & Judicial Process, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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Sun_and_Moon_Nuremberg_chronicleThe following commentary appears in this week’s Wisconsin Law Journal:

Transparency is the core value of a democratic society. In a democratic self-government, voters have the power to select and reject those who will wield the power of government.

The power of the vote is only meaningful if the voters have information upon which to act. This is where transparency in government comes in.

In the case of the governor, the voters need to know whether their tax dollars are being steered towards political donors and whether state resources are being used to advance partisan political purposes. This is why the prospect of executive-branch officials communicating through private emails, and taking other steps to hide the true reasons for executive decisions from the public, is so troubling.

In the case of the state Legislature, the voters need to know whether lawmakers are exercising their power independently. Our representatives in the state legislature shouldn’t act as mere conduits for self-serving laws drafted by special-interest groups. Wisconsin was a leader, through the creation of the Legislative Reference Bureau in 1901, in our nation’s history in insisting that legislators draft their own laws.

The role of our state judges, in enforcing the value of transparency in government, is vital. This role has two components. First, it is essential that our state judges enforce transparency on the other two branches of state government. Second, our state judges must comply with the need to be transparent within their own judicial branch. Read more »




Making a Murderer: Oh-So-Many Talking Points

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Category: Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Evidence, Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Ethics, Legal Practice, Legal Profession, Popular Culture & Law, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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635874987555624158-XXX-IMG-NETFLIX-MAKING-A-MUR-1-1-VGCTGMDU-78432434As the winter break winds down, it’s definitely worth your time to start binge-watching Making a Murderer, a recent Netflix documentary on a real-life criminal case. A very close-to-home criminal case, at that.

The documentary, filmed over 10 years, follows Steven Avery, who was convicted in 1985 of sexual assault. He maintained his innocence and, indeed, 18 years later DNA evidence exonerated him. After he was released, he sued Manitowoc County for his wrongful conviction. It looks as though that lawsuit starts digging up some very unsavory conduct among officials in Manitowoc County.

But then—Avery is arrested for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. Several months later, his nephew Brendan Dassey is also arrested.

I’ll stop there with plot. If you’ve been around Wisconsin, you’ve probably heard of the case. If you’ve been on the Internet in the last couple of weeks, you’ve almost surely heard of it. But you must watch it.

For law students, there’s so many teachable moments. For everyone, there’s so much to talk about. Read more »




Judge Maxine White: Aiming to Provide Well-Run, Fair Courts, not Oprah Episodes

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Category: Judges & Judicial Process, Milwaukee, Public, Speakers at Marquette, Wisconsin Court System
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What can you expect from the courts in Milwaukee County?

A system that does everything well, from the ultimate decisions down to the way people are received at the security points at the entrances to buildings.

A system that is well run and staffed by well-trained people in every role.

A system where people feel safe in the courthouse and people, especially crime victims, are treated with respect.

A system that handles cases of all kinds in a fair way, providing a fair forum without politics .

A system that does all it can to be sure civil cases as well as criminal cases, small claims as well as high-profile  major crimes, are handled effectively, professionally, and as promptly as possible.

Those are among the goals set out Wednesday by Judge Maxine White, who recently became chief judge of the first judicial district of Wisconsin (which is to say, Milwaukee County). She spoke at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School. Read more »




In Memory of Justice Patrick Crooks

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Category: Judges & Judicial Process, Public, Wisconsin Court System, Wisconsin Law & Legal System, Wisconsin Supreme Court
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Justice CrooksJustice N. Patrick Crooks was the epitome of a lawyer and judge who lived to serve. In his fifty-two-year legal career, he served as a captain in the office of the Judge Advocate General at the Pentagon and then as a lawyer in private practice in Green Bay, before becoming a Brown County circuit court judge and then justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In 1994 he was named Wisconsin Trial Judge of the Year by the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates. Justice Crooks served on the trial bench for nineteen years and on the Wisconsin Supreme Court from 1996 to his passing, in chambers, last week on September 21.

I was honored to work for Justice Crooks as his clerk during the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 1999-2000 term.

Justice Crooks approached each case with fresh eyes and an impartial mind. He reasoned through cases carefully and understood that he had a solemn role in deciding a case. Justice Crooks believed in the law and the justice system. Every case was fully analyzed and researched before oral argument. Opinions were to be written to guide lawyers, judges, and Wisconsin citizens. Justice Crooks was proud of his work on the trial bench and felt that his knowledge of the trial courtroom was important to his understanding of cases on appeal.

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Marquette Poll Reveals Support for Rehabilitation of Prisoners

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Marquette Law School Poll, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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For the past four years, Darren Wheelock and I have collaborated with Charles Franklin and the Marquette Law School Poll on a series of surveys of public attitudes toward sentencing and corrections policy in Wisconsin. Our 2015 results, released last week, seem to show remarkably high levels of support for prisoner rehabilitation. Of those who were asked, more than 80% expressed support for each of the following:

  • Expanding counseling programs for prisoners
  • Expanding job training programs for prisoners
  • Expanding educational programs for prisoners
  • Helping released offenders find jobs

At the same time, there are also indications of substantial, if somewhat lower, levels of support for various punitive policies:

  • About 47% supported making sentences more severe for all crimes
  • About 45% supported locking up more juvenile offenders
  • About 62% supported increasing the use of mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders
  • About 45% supported trying more juvenile offenders as adults

It is puzzling that many respondents expressed support for both pro-rehabilitation and tough-on-crime policies. We have also seen this phenomenon in earlier rounds of our polling.   Read more »