Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Character STILL matters

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.


Thank you! said...

Thank you for putting this up. It is high time that Kenoshans know what kind of behavior their newest judge-elect engaged in.

RAG said...

To Anonymous:

I appreciate your kind words but elected not to post your comment because I have no verification of the information you provided.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly what the public needs to hear. How dare he run such a trash-ridden campaign and expect to get away with it. Kudos to you, sir.

Village People said...

We all make mistakes and have opportunities to right wrongs. I can say I've made mistakes but I have tried to keep things more positive as people have pointed things out to me. Sometimes we are blind to how our personal writings and they effect they have on people. I always beleived that ethics committees and officials would review these types of situations and make right but nothing ever seems to be done. Do our laws need to be strengthend? Politics has become too much like marketing; just has to sell, doesn't have to work.

Fresh air said...

What a breath of fresh air to see blogging done right, as opposed to the hack-job Kathy Carpenter and Erin Decker did to Zievers on their blog, Stepping Right Up, right before the election.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your take on this issue. I supported Chad Kerkman and donated to his campaign, but when word of this came out, I voted for Zievers. People like Kathy Carpenter, GOP gal Erin Decker (Kenosha County Republican Party treasurer), and Rep. Samantha Kerkman have hijacked the Republican Party. It's great to see there are GOPers out there with intelligence and objectivity.

Anonymous said...

Very good description of an awful situation. Although what was posted on Carpenter's blog was distasteful, it is not surprising since she is a political operative.

What was really disgusting was Samantha Kerkman seeking out police records that apparently showed nothing since Mr. Zievers has never been charged, let alone convicted of anything and then delivered them to Kathy Carpenter to prepare and publish the smear and innuenndo. And we are supposed to feel good about Samantha as our State Representative? She has really disappointed me.

I don't know if it is just me, but if I am on the other side of the political fence from Samantha Kerkerman and her friend Kathy Carpnter,can I feel that Judge Kerkman is going to be fair to me in court? Or is that the point they are trying to leave with everyone.

Good blog RAG. It nice to know not all of the GOP has thrown away their ethics.

RAG said...

I can't say with certainty that Samantha Kerkman gave information to Kathy Carpenter and/or Erin Decker, etc. It does appear to be a convenient coincidence.

The overall problem is how judicial races have degenerated -- not just here but elsewhere in the state and even in recent contests for the state supreme court.

Tomorrow is Law Day. We ought to be respectful of the rule of law and our system of justice. It's difficult to find that respect when judicial candidates, directly or by acts of omission, engage in injudicious conduct which erodes public confidence.

What is particularly troubling is that this sniping does not have to be. I lamented in the campaign about how the candidates were weak in addressing substantive issues. In fact, Chad Kerkman might have been slightly more online with talking about contemporary issues in the community. I would much rather hear about the things that matter than the sniping that doesn't (or shouldn't).

I think here in Pleasant Prairie we know a little bit about spirited campaigns and they haven't always been clean or pretty.

When the dust settles after the election, however, most of us are able to shake it off and move forward together.

I obviously supported Clyde Allen's reelection campaign and Clyde worked very diligently to keep it above the belt. I am very proud of Clyde for this.

I'm also proud of John Roscioli, Clyde's opponent, who was gracious in defeat and, if John called me tomorrow and said, "I'm running for school board" he'd have my check and I'd have his sign in my yard.

I've had a beer or two with Alex Tiahnybok and I've blasted him as well for well-stated reasons but I've also given him credit where it's due.

We have a crying need for civility and respect in our society and especially in our political campaigns. This is particularly so in judicial races as we place an awesome amount of power in the hands of the judiciary.

All of this begs an important question: If we don't clean up these dirty campaigns, who will?

The Samantha Letter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

What about the people who were slamming Chad and lying about him being terminated from the DA's office?

RAG said...

Anonymous makes a good point which illustrates in the broader sense the real problem.

I don't know of anyone associated with the Zievers campaign who made such a representation but, if it happened, it clearly was false and wrong.

And therein lies the problem.

The escalating tit-for-tat takes the focus off of the real issues and further degenerates campaigns.

Judicial elections are a special breed and to allow the discourse to erode civility and judiciousness serves nobody.

This is not just the Zievers-Kerkman election. The same could be said for the last few state supreme court battles and judicial election contests in Milwaukee County. If we don't stop this now how far will these election contests degenerate?

The same can be said for the 17-year-old police reports which paint a less than flattering picture of the relationship between Zievers and his then-wife.

Having worked with police reports for decades it's not always possible to give credence to what's written on paper. What the officer does, especially in incidents which haven't been witnessed by police, essentially is to record what the various parties said. Seldom is there any weighing of credibility of the people making the statements. They may or may not be accurate and 17 years later the ability to assess accuracy become significantly attenuated.

These things make a compelling argument for Wisconsin to follow Iowa's lead and take judicial selection out of the beauty contest mode. A nominating commission selects judges, who serve by multi-county districts, and there are retention elections. Maybe this is the way Wisconsin needs to go.

Dad29 said...

We ought to be respectful of the rule of law and our system of justice. It's difficult to find that respect when judicial candidates, directly or by acts of omission, engage in injudicious conduct which erodes public confidence.Or when Presidents and Congresscritters ignore the law...

Or when SCOWI Justices contort the law to fit their personal agendas...

Anonymous said...

Let me preface this as I did above. I was a financial supporter of Kerkman, then opted NOT to vote for him.

In this case, the problem is that the open records request for the Ziever's police report came from Samantha Kerkman. The report was then "embellished" to accuse Mr. Zievers of abuse. It was then posted by 2 of the officers of the Kenosha County Republican Party on their blog site.

This was more than a whisper campaign or rumor going around. This was more than just one of Chad's supporters writing an unflattering VOP letter. That posting, showing an obviously battered woman, was clearly over the ethical line.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, we have a judge that in a non binding committee report of the office of lawyer regulation says that Chad Kerkman did violate SCR 20:8(a),(c), SCR 20:8.2 and SCR60.06(3)(e). He did nothing to have the internet information removed and he also requested a copy of the family file of Mr. Zievers and made copies. Some closed portion of the file somehow was made public in portions, not entirety, which eluded to a problem that was not quite true. Though the report saysit could not be proved Chad Kerkman made the copies. Sad to have someone with that caliber sitting on a bench making decisions regarding people's lives, children's lives.It is obvious he made or helped make decisions to further his career, a somewhat covert campaigning of sorts.