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Higginbotham says he’ll balance high court

Higginbotham

"The law is best developed when you have that natural tension that is created when you have a healthy diversity of thought at the table. The best decisions are promulgated that way."

Paul B. Higginbotham

As Dane County Circuit Court Judge Paul B. Higginbotham enters the state Supreme Court race, he describes himself as the best candidate to bring balance to the court. Higginbotham also points to his diverse professional and life experiences as providing him with a strong base from which to review the law and its impact on people.

While traveling the state Jan 9 and 10 announcing his candidacy, Higginbotham, 48, described the high court as "leaning to the right." During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal, he expanded on that view.

"This court already leans strongly in that direction," he said. "My personal philosophy is that any high court, whether it’s the U.S. Supreme Court or any other state supreme court, should have balance.

"It shouldn’t be extreme in any direction. I think the people are best served if the court has a fairly decent balance of folks on both ends and in the center."

Higginbotham maintained that having people with diverse philosophies sitting on the same court helps to promote a full dialogue of the issues involved in a case.

"The law is best developed when you have that natural tension that is created when you have a healthy diversity of thought at the table," Higginbotham said. "The best decisions are promulgated that way."

That being said, Higginbotham, who has been on the bench since 1994, was quick to note that his judicial decisions are not based on ideology. Higginbotham said he is not a "results-oriented judge."

He also makes sure that staff attorneys are aware of that when he tells them: "I don’t back into a case from the perspective of how I want it to come out. I emphasize and insist that we are not advocates for any position. A decision needs to be driven by what the law says as it applies to the facts that are before us."

Diversity on the Court

If elected, Higginbotham would be the first African-American to serve on one of Wisconsin’s appellate courts. He doesn’t want the judicial contest to focus on race; however, the circuit court judge indicated that there are problems when the judicial system does not reflect the community it represents.

There is the potential for people to view the system as unfair whether that is actually the case or not.

"As important as it is to have a Supreme Court that reflects the community that it presides over, it is equally, if not more important, to make sure that whoever is on that court is competent and qualified to do the job," Higginbotham said. "I have the competence and qualifications to do the job."

He pointed to more that eight years of experience on the circuit court bench as exposing him to a wide variety of cases and issues. Prior to that, he spent a year as the acting executive director of Madison’s Equal Opportunities Commission. He also served as the city’s first municipal judge and as Dane County’s minority affairs coordinator.

Following law school, Higginbotham worked for the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Inc., and then as a general practice trialattorney with an emphasis in civil rights litigation.

Before getting his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981 and his J.D. from the U.W. Law School in 1985, he owned and operated a plant store.

Higginbotham explained that those varied experiences have exposed him to a wide array of people in diverse settings. That understanding has served him well on the circuit court bench and would help him on the Supreme Court, he said.

"One of the things that I really enjoyed as a civil judge was getting to learn a lot about a variety of different things," he said. "I had an advantage in that I already had exposure to a wide variety of things."

Interest in the Law

Higginbotham’s interest in the
law was sparked by his cousin, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who served on the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The late Judge Higginbotham served from 1977 until 1993 as a circuit judge and chief judge in the Third Circuit.

He also was a well known authority on civil rights issues. In 1995, then-President Clinton appointed him commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He died in 1998.

"He was a big inspiration for me," said Judge Paul Higginbotham.

At the time he decided to go to law school, Higginbotham was operating the plant store. He was motivated by a desire to utilize his intellect and skills to help society.

"As an African-American, I thought, ‘I need to use that for my community," Higginbotham said. "I felt that I needed to move myself into a position where I could contribute in a very major way."

Issues to Address

Among the issues that are important to Higginbotham are working with people facing alcohol and other drug problems, and helping the justice system deal with the increase in unrepresented litigants.

He chairs the Dane County Victim Impact Committee, which brings second-offense drunken drivers together with people who have been seriously impacted by drunken driving.

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"I’m constantly looking for ways to work with people who have alcohol and drug problems," Higginbotham said. "The statistics are clearly showing that simply throwing people in jail is not a panacea. It doesn’t resolve the problem."

If people come out of incarceration to simply commit more crimes, that does not enhance public safety. Judicial efforts need to go beyond incarceration to help offenders deal with their drug and alcohol problems.

"As a Supreme Court justice, I want to continue to work with the judicial system … and the state Legislature to develop ways that we can be more effective at helping people," Higginbotham said, "at the same time, balancing public safety."

He also expressed concerns about the dramatic increase in pro se litigants and their impact on the court system. As an attorney representing the poor and as a trial judge, Higginbotham said, he has seen how they affect the system and how the system treats them. As a Supreme Court justice, he would like to work with judges at all levels "to make the system more user-friendly."

Higginbotham will take on state Court of Appeals Judge Patience Roggensack and Barron County Circuit Court Judge Edward Brunner in the Feb. 18 primary election. The two top vote-getters will face off in the April 1 general election.

Tony Anderson can be reached by email.

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