If you create it, they will come.
For the second time in the last 15 years, St. Croix County is getting a new circuit court branch and the position is again generating significant interest throughout the local legal community.
Five candidates filed nomination papers for this spring’s race for the Branch 4 seat in Hudson. When Branch 3 was established in 1994, seven hopefuls campaigned.
Several of the judicial candidates said the open race allows those who may have not chosen to run against an incumbent the opportunity to pursue judicial office in St. Croix.
“There is no doubt that it being a new seat makes it more realistic for a person in a smaller county like this to decide he or she has some reasonable chance at succeeding,” said candidate Charles B. Harris, who has more than 30 years of experience in the area.
With no incumbent to challenge, the playing field is level and experience could be a determining factor for voters. Three of the candidates are private practitioners, while one is a public defender and another a prosecutor.
Attorney Mark J. Gherty, of Gherty & Gherty, SC, suggested that whoever emerges out of the Feb. 19 primary and then the April 1 general election should be able to “hit the ground running” and provide immediate relief to the overburdened system.
“From my perspective, the position needs somebody who doesn’t need to be trained,” said Gherty, 55, who has practiced criminal and civil law in the area for 27 years.
In November 2007, the Wisconsin Legislature established the new branch in St. Croix after a comprehensive judicial needs study showed a need for 1.4 additional judicial positions to process cases.
St. Croix is also adding a deputy court clerk and judicial assistant, both state funded positions, and a county-funded court reporter position. No major renovations are needed to accommodate the additional judge or staff, according to clerk of court, Lori Meyer.
“The judges have been overloaded and as a result, cases important to collection and enforcement of child support have a tremendous backlog,” said Carol L. Law of Law & DeMaio, S.C., the only female candidate.
Law, 53, ran in 2001 for the Branch 2 seat currently occupied by Judge Edward F. Vlack and is seeking to become the first woman to serve as a judge in St. Croix.
Hudson State Public Defender Howard Cameron, 56, is hoping to follow in his brother’s footsteps. Roderick A. Cameron is a circuit court judge in Chippewa County.
“There is always an introduction period and getting used to the fact that you are now a judge, but I think I could jump in fairly easily,” said Howard Cameron, who has primarily handled criminal cases since joining the SPD.
While all of the candidates have residency in St. Croix, several have ties to Minnesota and the close proximity between Hudson and the Twin Cities could have an impact on the election.
Harris, 58, noted that many cities in the St. Croix area get their media feed from Minneapolis-St. Paul, which means mounting an expensive television campaign could be problematic.
“I think it’s going to be difficult for candidates to want to spend a lot of money if the message isn’t going to be seen or heard by a lot of people,” said Harris, who recently joined Arthur, Chapman, Kettering, Smetak & Pikala PA, in Minneapolis, but still works the majority of his cases in Wisconsin.
St. Croix Assistant District Attorney Kenneth N. Sortedahl did not anticipate candidates would be injecting significant dollars into television.
“I’m certainly not taking out any television ads,” said Sortedahl, 42. “I’ve gotten a sense from other people that the going rate for campaigning is about $25,000.”
Gherty, who practices in Minnesota on occasion, said a background in interstate practice would be beneficial for an incoming judge.
“I think that person could bring the experience of working with other court systems to the bench and maybe make things more efficient here,” said Gherty.