Justice, at its core, is the same to Ellen Berz from highbrow discussions on national ethics with Janet Reno to children passionately representing the Cowardly Lion and Dorothy in mock trials.
That’s because the basic principles of a just society, which inspired her from an early age, are clear, she said, even to 7 year olds. Berz, of the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office, has witnessed such revelations through her work coaching elementary school students in mock trials.
“When they give their closing arguments,” she said of the young participants, “I swear this all comes out. Even at age 7 you can see the leadership and advocacy of justice in these kids.
“They know … that we have certain rights and that it’s important to be fair and to be truthful.”
From teaching children to starting the public defender’s office in Baraboo, Berz has pursued justice in many forms over the years. After a few years as a prosecutor following her graduation from law school, Berz joined the SPD, where she served as trial division director, counsel division director and then training director before she felt the “need to get back into the courtroom” in 2003 through her current role with the Dane County trial office.
She studied coalition building at the Harvard School of Government’s senior executive program, has trained lawyers on their place in the community through the National Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C., and weighed in on state criminal justice representative with former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
Wherever her work takes her, Berz remains in contact with law school peers and students, she said, even mentoring a handful of lawyers along the way. It’s part of an openness she said she picked up from her former instructor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, former Dane County Circuit judge and State Bar President Susan Steingass.
Berz also was involved in establishing Justice Without Borders, which began as an advisory program for public defenders in Israel and blossomed into a conference on just and unique legal frameworks for 17 other nations.
Learning about the varied needs of justice systems from the U.S. to the Middle East, Berz said, revealed some very central truths about law and reignited the same core belief in justice that pulled her toward a legal career as an undergrad.
“All of these countries understood the very fundamental core passion for justice,” she said, “something understood in every language, every country, just achieved differently.
“Some [systems] work better than others and none are perfect, but every human wants justice.”