The candidates in the race for Wisconsin Court of Appeals District III debated textualism and the influence of money in judicial races during a candidate forum on Thursday night.
The Wisconsin Association for Justice hosted candidates Judge Greg Gill Jr. and Rick Cveykus virtually. Gill is a circuit court judge in Outagamie County, while Cveykus is a managing partner at Cveykus Law in Wausau. District III encompasses northern Wisconsin, with headquarters in Wausau.
When it comes to judicial philosophy, Gill described himself as a textualist.
“I believe the role of the judge is to read the law as it is written,” Gill said. “My job is to simply follow the directions given to me by the Constitution and the Legislature.”
If the language’s meaning is in question, Gill said he should look backward to see what the meaning would have been at the time the law was enacted.
“If there is a change, it needs to come from the Legislature, not the judiciary,” Gill said.
Cveykus said textualism is a buzzword that candidates use to get votes.
“In my belief, it’s a bit disingenuous and used to cover up judicial activism, especially from the right,” Cveykus said.
He said when the text of the law is clear, every judge would apply the law in the same way. Issues arise when statutes are in conflict or, like the state constitution, the law was written 150 years ago when certain technologies or processes in question didn’t exist.
“The ugly truth is every judge knows that textualism is where we all start, but it alone can’t resolve all of the issues that come before the court,” Cveykus said.
Cveykus called into question the sources of the $125,000 of campaign donations that Gill has received. Cveykus said many came from supporters of “far-right agendas,” such as John Menard and the founders of ULINE.
“When people are giving you that much money, they might expect something, and we have to talk about that,” Cveykus said.
Gill said he’s never made any promises other than to serve admirably and with character. He wasn’t sure that he’d categorize his donors as “far right” either.
“I certainly have never gotten that impression from any of the people who have donated to me,” Gill said.
Gill said he’s been blessed to receive donations of all sizes and campaign contributions are an “unfortunate reality of campaigning.”
During the forum, Cveykus said his personal donations totaled about $11,000. In January, his campaign said he had raised $50,000 as of Dec. 31.
Both candidates saw benefits to the appellate courts hearing more oral arguments. Cveykus said he thought the court should rely on the written brief, but if additional arguments need to be addressed, then the court should hold oral arguments. Gill said more oral arguments would help people feel heard and increase the public’s exposure to the Court of Appeals.
The candidates also posed solutions to racial and gender bias within the judicial system as a whole. Gill thought continued education about bias is imperative and said he would be committed to continued improvement as an appellate judge.
“I can use the written word to educate other judges on how to be responsive and be compassionate and to be helpful to those people who they encounter,” Gill said.
Cveykus said courts need to be more transparent about the issues that exist so judges can make an effort to correct them. He also saw the Court of Appeals playing a role in preserving constitutional rights for all.
“Specifically, what I can do with the Court of Appeals, besides transparency, is that I can stop it so we’re not chipping away at constitutional rights based on socioeconomic status and the correlation that often comes with cities in comparison to rural counties,” Cveykus said.
The election for District III is scheduled for April 6.