It's almost a month since the race for judge in Branch 8 of Kenosha County Circuit Court was decided but something came to my attention earlier this week that mandates further scrutiny.
Before continuing I must point out that I have more than 40 years experience with elections and certainly know that the heat of battle reaches a flash point immediately preceding election day and plummets the day after. Campaign rhetoric and posturing are to be expected and, quite frankly, I tend to tune out most campaign stuff a few days before the election because if it was important, it would have been brought to the table with sufficient lead time for a meaningful discussion.
What happened in the most recent contest for Circuit Judge in Kenosha is so severe that it cannot be trivialized into "let sleeping dogs lie." What I am about to write may well subject me to criticism and perhaps even retaliation but it must be said. As Sir Edmund Burke once noted, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. I cannot sit on the sidelines and do nothing.
It's no secret that I pretty much sat out this election. I was much more concerned with Pleasant Prairie village races and, as I wrote on March 22, I had no strong feelings about either of the two judicial candidates.
In the February primary I voted for David Wilk, an honorable attorney active in the community whose reputation is impeccable. While there were many fine candidates, I had concerns whether Fred Zievers was truly a serious candidate and I wasn't comfortable with Chad Kerkman's wife being a state legislator at the same time he might serve as judge. Greg Guttormsen is a fine man and a friend but he joined the race too late for his candidacy to be fully vetted.
As we all know, Zievers and Kerkman survived the primary. I was truly undecided until I received a Kerkman campaign flyer in the mail which, I felt, went too far. The flyer depicted a surgeon and implied that electing Zievers to preside over a court in which family law cases would be heard would be like having an inexperienced surgeon perform your surgery. I knew this crossed the line as Fred Zievers was handling family law and other types of cases when Chad Kerkman was still in high school. So my vote went to Zievers.
But Chad Kerkman won the election and I immediately congratulated him.
That was then. This is now.
It came to my attention Monday that just before the election a rather glitzy anti-Zievers ad was posted on a popular local blog, Stepping Right Up, hosted by Kenosha alderman and local Republican chair Kathy Carpenter.
The "ad" (which I actually didn't see until today) depicted a black-eyed and puffy faced woman and implied that Zievers had twice threatened his ex-wife. This was certainly news to me as I've known Fred Zievers for nearly 30 years and "wife beater" would never be a description I would use to describe him. I've also known his ex-wife and suffice to say that she has had a number of challenges in her life, some of which may be a matter of record, and but for the attack on Fred it would never be necessary to even think about them.
I also know Fred Zievers to be a devoting and caring father who raised a wonderful daughter. While Fred's views on domestic violence could be more enlightened, I also know that he donated his legal services to assist some domestic violence victims.
To my knowledge Fred Zievers has no criminal record and has never been charged with or convicted of any crime and that includes any acts of domestic violence.
So, while Chad Kerkman may not have posted this misleading 11th hour piece of mudslinging trash, he also did not repudiate it prior to the election. Further, it's a matter of public record that his wife, Samantha Kerkman, a Republican legislator, purportedly made a public records request to get any police reports in which Fred Zievers may be mentioned. How convenient.
And how even more convenient it was that this sniper attack made its appearance on the blog of the county GOP chair!
Of course, there was no direct linkage to Chad Kerkman -- and for good reason.
Wisconsin's Code of Judicial Conduct states: "A candidate for a judicial office shall not knowingly or with reckless disregard for the statement's truth or falsity misrepresent the identity, qualifications, present position, or other fact concerning the candidate or an opponent. A candidate for judicial office should not knowingly make representations that, although true, are misleading, or knowingly make statements that are likely to confuse the public with respect to the proper role of judges and lawyers in the American adversary system."
This code also says: "While holding the office of judge or while a candidate for judicial office or a judge-elect, every judge, candidate for judicial office, or judge-elect should maintain, in campaign conduct, the dignity appropriate to judicial office and the integrity and independence of the judiciary. A judge, candidate for judicial office, or judge-elect should not manifest bias or prejudice inappropriate to the judicial office. Every judge, candidate for judicial office, or judge-elect should always bear in mind the need for scrupulous adherence to the rules of fair play while engaged in a campaign for judicial office."
And further: "A judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge's activities. A judge shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."
This may seem like heady stuff, but it's also very important especially as judicial campaigns become slimier with each passing election.
Nearly 20 years ago I was in a six-way judicial primary in which all six candidates conducted their campaigns with honesty, dignity and integrity. We debated qualifications and issues but never even came close to going below the belt. During the course of this campaign and thereafter we all became friends. That's the way nonpartisan judicial campaigns should be conducted.
Honor and respect are attributes that are earned by honesty, fair play, scholarship and integrity. Winning a judicial election -- especially one won at all costs -- does not necessarily make a person honorable.
That said, the blame doesn't stop with the candidate. Cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, once penned the phrase, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Evil in these election campaigns triumphs because good people don't stand up and demand better conduct from candidates. Instead there's often a tendency to reward the despicable. That will continue to be the case as long as we say and do nothing. Judicial campaigns run amok are anything but judicious.
Finally, one would have hoped that Kathy Carpenter would have been more responsible in screening the content of her blog. True, there's a fine line between legitimate expression of diverse opinions but this was well beyond that. She should have known better. (The offending post has since been removed.) And, if indeed this was done without Chad Kerkman's knowledge, then it would have been incumbent upon him to not only demand its removal and apologize but to immediately and publicly repudiate the post. (You'll recall how swiftly and unequivocally last year Barack Obama made it clear that Sarah Palin's family was off limits in the campaign and that any of his staff would be fired if they violated that policy.)
At the end of the day, Lady Justice must have had to remove her blindfold. That's because it was soaked in tears.