By Steve Schuster
With so many headlines focused on the upcoming Wisconsin Supreme Court election, it’s important to remember there are other elections on the ballot that have a significant impact on the community. Among the other races, Milwaukee Municipal Court Branch 2 and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.
Retired Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge John Di Motto stressed the importance of voting at a Milwaukee Bar Association discussion Monday with Milwaukee Municipal Court Branch 2 candidate Molly Gena. Gena’s opponent Sen. Lena Taylor was also invited, but was unable to attend due to an emergency medical appointment and scheduling conflict, Sen. Taylor tells the Wisconsin Law Journal Monday night.
James Burnett the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office public affairs director asked Gena a mix of questions he prepared and fielded anonymous questions from the audience written on index cards.
Gena said she wants to become the next Branch 2 judge because “I want to serve the city of Milwaukee that I love.”
In an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal Monday night, Taylor said she is a proponent of restorative justice.
“I want defendants to be able to say to me — judge, I want take responsibility for my behavior and serve the community for the harm I caused,” Taylor said.
“I believe you need to give people the opportunity to take responsibility,” Taylor added noting that she wants “people to not end up being incarcerated because of poverty.” Gena expressed similar sentiments during the discussion.
During both Milwaukee Bar Association discussion with Gena and the phone interview with Taylor, candidates said they would hold reckless drivers accountable.
Taylor said if elected judge, she would “find innovative ways to take away the negative energy of reckless driving and put into options to move individuals in a different direction.”
Gena said she would make it a priority to ensure public safety and hold people fully accountable.
Both Gena and Taylor are proponents of community service and court accessibility.
Gena said, “Access to justice is incredibly import,” and Taylor said, “we need to make the courts more accessible to the people.”
Gena said, “Some people don’t realize that the court can order community service. (As a defense attorney) we ask for that frequently. It’s very effective and reduces fines.”
“Punishing people through non-payment sanctions only creates more problems for the city,” Gena said.
Taylor agreed and said 75% of fines are not being paid.
“I don’t want to see that. We need pathways that give other options to work and community service that can move them in a different direction,” Taylor said noting that “those are the kinds of things I’ve created as a lawyer and as a legislator. I will do the same as a judge.”
Both candidates advocate to give a voice to the voiceless. “Even if it doesn’t go their way, I want them to feel like they were heard,” Gena said.
Gena vows to keep politics out of courtroom and says she would increase time on bench by extending courtroom hours to reduce backlog. Gena also said she would speed up the time it takes for defendants to be seen by the court.
“I think part of holding people accountable … is to bring them into court sooner, Gena said.”
Both candidates agree that the role of the court should not be revenue generation.
“I do not think the court is meant to bring in revenue. It’s not a fundraising apparatus, “Gena said. Taylor said she agreed.
Gena praised the new city leaders in Milwaukee, but noted there are still challenges ahead.
“The poverty and segregation in our city still remains a challenge,” Gena said noting that “right now the majority of the people getting tickets are people of color. They have tickets stacked against them for minor traffic stops.”
Gena also empathized with law enforcement officials who she said need to spend less time in court and more time on the streets.
“I’ve watched officers sit there all morning only to learn their trial isn’t happening that morning. I would want to run the whole court more efficiently, get through cases faster and get people out who don’t need to be sitting there waiting their mornings,” Gena added.
Gena currently is the managing attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where she advocates to remove barriers to justice for those who would otherwise not afford legal representation. Previously, Gena worked at the Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability, a partnership between Wisconsin Community Services, LAW, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and the city of Milwaukee. Gena has practiced in more than 45 different municipal courts and over 23 different circuit courts across Wisconsin.
Gena also serves on the advisory board of the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, the Milwaukee chapter board of the ACLU and the American Constitution Society, has volunteered with the nonpartisan Wisconsin Election Protection coalition and the Philippine Cultural and Civic Center Foundation, and has worked as a city of Milwaukee poll worker since 2016, according to her website.
Gena has dedicated her career to public service and access to justice, representing more than 1,700 clients (mostly city of Milwaukee residents) who could not afford to pay for an attorney. She has over fifteen years of experience representing clients in Milwaukee Municipal Court, her website states.
Gena attended Case Western Reserve University where she graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in political science and graduated from The University of Wisconsin’s law school.
Sen. Taylor serves in the Wisconsin State Assembly and earned her law degree from Southern Illinois University. Taylor earned her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is a Rufus King High School alum. She previously worked as a public defender.
Taylor still lives on the very block she grew up on. She is serving her fourth term in the Wisconsin State Senate, representing the 4th Senate District, which includes the Village of Shorewood, portions of Wauwatosa, Glendale, and the north & northwestern portions of the City of Milwaukee. Taylor served as the first African-American to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee expanding the committee’s work on criminal justice reforms and implemented the first ever “State of Justice” tour, holding committee meetings across Wisconsin. Senator Taylor also served as the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, becoming the first African-American woman to hold that position and only the second African-American, according to her website.
Taylor made headlines back in 2011 when she took a stand against then Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining. Taylor was a part of the “Wisconsin 14”—the fourteen Democratic Senators that left the state in order to break quorum to slow the process of the “Budget Repair Bill” that would strip away the collective bargaining rights of public workers, her website states.
She also made headlines more recently over litigation and other claims.
Both candidates are fighting for the seat to replace former Milwaukee Municipal Court Judge Derek Mosley, who after more than two decades accepted a position as Director of Marquette University’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education.
The election will be held April 4, the same day as the Wisconsin Supreme Court election.
This story has been updated.