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Judicial candidates differ on when to appoint counsel (PHOTO SLIDESHOW)

By: Eric Heisig//March 6, 2014//

Judicial candidates differ on when to appoint counsel (PHOTO SLIDESHOW)

By: Eric Heisig//March 6, 2014//

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Milwaukee County court commissioners Laura Gramling Perez (left) and Cedric Cornwall square off in a forum while running for Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Michael Goulee’s Branch 32 seat March 6 at the Milwaukee Bar Association. The bar hosted the forum in advance of the April 1 election. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)
Milwaukee County court commissioners Laura Gramling Perez (left) and Cedric Cornwall square off Thursday in a forum while running for Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Michael Goulee’s Branch 32 seat at the Milwaukee Bar Association. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Both candidates running for Milwaukee County judge said Thursday that they are willing to appoint attorneys for civil cases when a client can’t afford one.

The degree to which Milwaukee County Chief Court Commissioner Laura Gramling Perez and Commissioner Cedric Cornwall are willing to, though, is what sets them apart.

The commissioners are running to fill the Branch 32 seat, which will be vacated by Judge Michael Goulee when he retires at the end of his term. That branch is the only contested seat for the April 1 election, as most of the other seats have only the sitting judge registered as a candidate.

The candidates spoke at a forum Thursday, moderated by Marquette University Law Professor Dan Blinka and hosted by the Milwaukee Bar Association. Milwaukee Assistant District Attorney Janet Protasiewicz, who is running unopposed to fill retired Judge Charles Kahn’s seat, also spoke at the forum.

Cornwall and Gramling Perez were asked about the idea of a Civil Gideon petition, which is pending in front of the state Supreme Court and would require judges to appoint counsel for indigent clients in civil cases.

Gramling Perez made it clear that appointing counsel was important when it was warranted, though she noted that financial considerations must be made, as well.

“I don’t think that that means that you appoint counsel in every single case,” she said. “But I do believe that our adversarial system of justice is really undermined in certain instances when one party has the ability to have an attorney speak on their behalf and another party isn’t able to.”

Cornwall, in turn, pointed out that there are no laws that mandate appointment of counsel in civil cases. He said he would be “very selective” in appointing attorneys to indigent clients.

“I would look at other options, if there are any, before I appoint counsel for an individual,” Cornwall said. “And let me be clear, before I appoint counsel, the individual has to actually make that request. I’m not going to be an activist judge.”

Milwaukee County court commissioners Laura Gramling Perez (left) and Cedric Cornwall square off in a forum while running for Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Michael Goulee’s Branch 32 seat March 6 at the Milwaukee Bar Association. The bar hosted the forum in advance of the April 1 election. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County Court Commissioner Laura Gramling Perez answers an audience member’s question during a candidate’s forum March 6 at the Milwaukee Bar Association. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County Court Commissioner Cedric Cornwall  fields a question during a candidate’s forum March 6 at the Milwaukee Bar Association. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County court commissioners Laura Gramling Perez (left) and Cedric Cornwall acknowledge those in attendance at the conclusion of a candidate’s forum March 6 at the Milwaukee Bar Association. The two are running for Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Michael Goulee’s Branch 32 seat . (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Both candidates, however, said more needed to be done in Milwaukee County to help indigent clients. Cornwall, in the face of state and federal cuts to civil legal services, said technology should be used more to help those in need of legal help.

Gramling Perez, in turn, said she felt a lot can be done by partnering with drug and alcohol treatment groups in the county, as well as ensuring that judges properly explain court proceedings to those who are representing themselves.

Still, both candidates seemed in agreement when speaking at the forum. Both said they felt Wisconsin’s rules for the recusal of a judge are fair and don’t need to be changed. And they said they would follow the law as written while ensuring that both sides are fairly heard

“We have all heard the expression that no one’s above the law,” Cornwall said.

And both spent a lot of time touting the endorsements and qualifications – with Cornwall’s work as a former defense attorney and Gramling Perez discussing her time as a prosecutor and working in complex litigation – that they feel make them qualified.

Gramling Perez, in particular, talked about family court cases and zeroed in on decisions she has made to remove violent children from their families for safety reasons.

“That’s a difficult decision to make and it’s one that you often mull over afterwards and it stays with you for a long time after making them,” she said. “But it’s the type of decision that you do have to be prepared to make when it’s appropriate.”

Cornwall discussed his time presiding over small claims cases, and how landlord-tenant disputes can be heartbreaking.

“A lot of times the landlords would make arguments in terms of dollar-cents analysis,” he said. “I understand that. But at the same time, we’re dealing with individuals, we’re dealing with people. We’re dealing with families.”

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