Just a few weeks into a years-long appointment, Judge Rachel M. Blise is finding her place on the bankruptcy court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
“It’s been great so far,” Blise said. “Everyone’s been so welcoming and helpful, and I already feel at home here.”
Blise took the oath of office and joined the bench in March. She’s serving a 14-year term as a U.S. bankruptcy judge, succeeding former Judge Brett H. Ludwig.
Like Ludwig, she’ll have dockets in both the Eastern and Western districts of Wisconsin. She’s been getting new bankruptcy cases in the Eastern District as they come in. By early April, she was in the midst of being brought on board in the Western District.
Blise has been thinking about joining the judiciary since early on in her legal career. While attending Marquette University Law School, she was intern for Judge Susan V. Kelley in the bankruptcy court in the Eastern District and Judge Diane S. Sykes in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
After graduating, she was clerk for Judge Carolyn Dineen King in the Fifth Circuit. Under King’s mentorship, Blise envisioned herself as part of the judiciary too.
“She was an amazing role model and mentor,” Blise said. “That really gave me the idea that I would like to be a judge someday. This opportunity presented itself, and here I am.”
Blise also brings about a decade of experience in bankruptcy and business-litigation law to the bench. She joined Foley & Larder in 2011 and had been serving as senior counsel before her judicial appointment.
The Wisconsin Law Journal talked to Blise about how her career experience will aid her as a bankruptcy judge, how she’ll preside over her courtroom and more.
Wisconsin Law Journal: How has your prior practice prepared you to serve as a bankruptcy judge?
Judge Rachel Blise: The role of any judge is to knowledgably apply the law with respect and compassion for litigants. I practiced for many years at Foley & Lardner and had the opportunity to work on a number of complex legal issues. I had the opportunity to dive into the law in a number of ways, and so I’m looking forward to doing on the bench as well.
I interned with Judge Kelley on the bankruptcy court and with Judge Sykes on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and that really gave me a flavor of working in the judiciary. Then I clerked with Judge Carolyn Dineen King on the Fifth Circuit following law school, and she was an amazing role model and mentor.
Judge King always said it was a judge’s job to apply the law, and I saw her do that in case after case. That gave me the perspective that I now have today. It’s not a judge’s job to rule on a case with any sort of bias or tilting toward one party based on the judge’s personal feeling, but (it’s) to take a look at the law and apply it as it should be applied.
WLJ: What can attorneys and litigants who come before you expect?
Blise: They can expect me to treat everyone equally. I will approach each case as an individual case. I’m not going to pre-judge anything or anyone based on the attorneys or the litigants. They can expect me to be fair and listen to everyone who comes before me.
WLJ: What are some of the challenges you’re faced with as a bankruptcy judge?
Blise: Our district has one of the highest pro se dockets in the bankruptcy court. The reason for that isn’t always clear – perhaps it’s the DIY culture of Midwesterners – but that can present a challenge, whether it’s because there are things that the litigant doesn’t understand or can’t convey to the court or to the opposing party as well as an attorney could. Sometimes the judge needs to step in and steer things in the right direction.
WLJ: What are some of the ways that you do that with pro se litigants?
Blise: Well, unfortunately we’re not allowed to give them legal advice, but certainly when a ruling is made or something is happening, the judge can explain what’s going on for their benefit. The reason for ruling or some sort of procedural step may not always clear to a pro se litigant, so stopping and taking the time to explain to the litigant what is happening goes a long way toward helping them understand and navigate the process.
WLJ: The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported bankruptcy filings fell about 21% over the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2020. What have you seen in the Eastern District in the first quarter of 2021, and what are your predictions for the year going forward?
Blise: Certainly, filings are down currently compared to past years. The reason for that is not completely clear. It’s likely related to the pandemic, but whether it’s due to the various moratoria on evictions and foreclosures or general economic uncertainty, it’s just not very clear why filings are down. They may pick up, but as with anything in this pandemic, you just can’t make predictions or read the future because this whole thing has been unpredictable from the start.