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La Crosse courts in transition

When Bob Dylan penned the lyrics, “times, they are a changin’” he probably didn’t use La Crosse County as in-spiration. However, that statement applies to the local court system.

Three circuit court judges announced their retirements throughout the last two years and come the April election, more than 70 years of combined service will be succeeded.

“It’s an unprecedented situation to lose this much experience in so short of a time span,” said Branch 4 hopeful Scott L. Horne who won the primary election on Feb. 20.

Six candidates remain for the three seats and experience in the community could go a long way in persuading voters, especially in what is historically a sparsely attended election.

Continuity in the Court

Horne, who has been the La Crosse County district attorney for the last 22 years, led all candidates with 6,556 votes in the primary.

“I think the public expects a certain level of stability and some of that comes with experience,” said Horne. “There was a differing philosophy among the five branches, but still a certain consistency as far as the public was concerned.”

Kara M. Burgos, a partner at Moen Sheehan Meyer, Ltd., in La Crosse, also advanced in the Branch 4 race with 3,122 votes. Burgos, 35, acknowledged that turning over a large part of the county’s circuit court judiciary requires a certain level of familiarity.

“I believe that the experience we are losing needs to be replaced with that same broad experience,” said Burgos, who began practicing in 1995 and also serves as La Crosse County circuit court commissioner.

Branch 2 candidate Loralee Clark agreed that a “broad perception” should be a necessity for the new judges. Clark has been an assistant district attorney since 1987 and finished second in the primary with 3,364 votes behind county public defender Elliott Levine, who received 5,500 votes.

Levine has been with the La Crosse Public Defender’s office since 1990 and believes the transition from old to new should be relatively smooth for the public.

“The current judges have done a good job coming up with new ways of doing things and been pretty progressive, especially in the last 10-12 years,” said Levine. “That’s something the new judges should be willing to continue.”

Votes of Confidence

Recognition within the county will be crucial for candidates, especially in an election which rarely garners the type of support most partisan races do.

“In going out and campaigning, I’ve run into a number of jurors who sat on a case I prosecuted and expressed their support,” said Clark. “That’s a nice affirmation of what I’ve been doing for the last two decades.”

Burgos conceded that her exposure outside of legal circles is relatively limited, but she was impressed with her support in the primary.

“I was very pleased with the vote, but surprised at the total number of votes cast,” said Burgos. “Local elections are so important to the community, yet they generate the lowest turnout. Given my relative anonymity outside legal circles, I felt my vote totals were excellent.”

According to the State Elections Board, 11,337 of the 73,726 registered voters in La Crosse County participated in the primary. The 15.4 percent, low by election standards, is about what the board anticipated.

The attendance was well above neighboring Trempealeau and Vernon Counties, which each had less than a 10 percent turnout to vote on the State Supreme Court race.

“I think the fact that there are three contested races created some confusion, but also increased interest among voters,” said Clark who viewed her 20 years in the district attorney’s office as big asset.

Prior to this year, the last contested circuit court election in the county was in 1995 when Ramona A. Gonzalez beat Horne for the Branch 1 seat. Gonzalez was re-elected in 2001 and is running unopposed this spring.

Community involvement has its limits according to Branch 3 candidate Todd W. Bjerke, who has worked as an assistant district attorney since 1989. Bjerke is challenging incumbent Judge Roger W. LeGrand, who was appointed in February 2006.

“I think all the candidates are invested in the community, but it’s not always that easy to get out and be active, so it should be a non-issue,” said Bjerke.

He cited his performance as a prosecutor as a good indicator of his commitment to the county.

Jack Zemlicka can be reached by email.

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