In your mind, what qualities make a strong municipal judge?
The qualities of a strong municipal judge are integrity and experience. It is critically important for municipal judges to treat people fairly. For most people, the municipal court is going to be your only experience in the courtroom and you are not going to have an attorney. You come to municipal court because you are alleged to have violated a traffic law or one of our ordinances.
Although these are minor offenses, it can be intimidating to come to court and face a judge. I work diligently to explain how the court works so that each person who appears in front of me has clear expectations. I apply the law to help ensure the safety of our community while understanding the background and needs of our community to ensure fair application of the law.
In addition, my legal experience uniquely qualifies me for the position of Racine’s Municipal Judge. Along with serving as the Municipal Judge since 2016, which is a part-time position, I run a successful law firm that I established in 2012, focusing on estate planning and probate. Before beginning my own firm, I was a litigator at one of Wisconsin’s largest firms for the better part of a decade and gained extensive experience in First Amendment law and general regulatory compliance. Since 2011, I have consecutively been named a Super Lawyer “Rising Star,” the selection process involves peer nominations, independent research, and peer evaluations. I also received a unanimous decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and have been admitted to practice in all Wisconsin courts, the Federal District Courts for Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court.
What are the three biggest challenges the city faces and how would you work to address them in the courtroom?
The three biggest challenges that come before the Municipal Court include aggressive driving, truancy, and driver’s license recovery for safe drivers. Our community has seen too many fatalities and serious injuries due to aggressive driving and speeding — many involving our teenage drivers. I apply the law to help reduce the rates of dangerous driving. By state statute and agreement of the municipalities, all habitually truant students from 6th through 12th grade come to the Racine Municipal Court.
Data has shown that 9th-grade attendance is one of the best predictors of a student’s graduation. I, in coordination with the Racine Police Department and Racine Unified, developed a program to address truancies. Early in the school year, I visited each of the 9th-grade classes at the three largest high schools to make expectations clear: there will be zero tolerance for skipping school. Any student who reaches the threshold of habitually truant now appears before me and is ordered to complete community service and improve their attendance.
I also work with nonprofit organizations around the community to provide mentorship for youth who are struggling with attendance. We are seeing positive results! Driver’s license recovery is another critical issue for our community. It is difficult to get around Racine without a car. One of my goals in serving in this role is to have everyone in our community driving legally with valid insurance. Many individuals have their licenses suspended for nonpayment of a fine or forfeiture and have no history of unsafe driving. As long as the individual has not exhibited dangerous driving behaviors, I help set a path for the individual to recover his or her driver’s license through reopening cases, granting requests for payment plans, and, in appropriate cases, converting the forfeiture to community service.
Many City of Racine residents struggle with poverty, don’t have a driver’s license or a GED. How would that factor into your decisionmaking as a judge?
There are pockets of extreme poverty in this community. The fact that our community as a whole has not really recovered from the last couple of recessions does not help. Poverty makes everything in life more difficult. Court obligations and are no exception. Many who appear in front of me have difficulty paying their forfeitures before their court date, not to mention struggling to cover the $60 reinstatement fee to get their license back, $75 annual fee to register their vehicle, and the hundreds of dollars each month for insurance.
Yet, we do not have a viable alternative in our public transportation. I am acutely aware of these impediments and give safe drivers the ability to get back on track. If you have received a municipal violation fine and are concerned about payment, it’s vital you come to your scheduled court appearance. I routinely grant requests for payment plans — and in appropriate cases, community service — so that anyone who is struggling to pay their forfeiture can find a path to success.
If you completely ignore your obligations, your forfeiture will be sent to collections and it is possible your driver’s license will be suspended for one year for nonpayment. If anyone reading this is currently behind in paying a forfeiture, contact the municipal court and request an appearance.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I celebrate the successes of those I work with. For our community to succeed, we all have to succeed. I believe that each person can reach his or her full potential if given the chance. I have been working collaboratively with community leaders to find practical solutions for our youthful offenders. I frequently receive feedback that the students are making great progress and are internalizing the message that each one of us has the ability to succeed. I am inspired by the young people who continue to volunteer their time at the same organizations after their community service has been completed. I also get stuff done. I have been working diligently since taking office to modernize the court. We are in the process of launching a computer software program for the court to replace the typewriters and carbonless paper.
Why should people elect you?
I am committed to making fair and impartial decisions based on the law and the facts of each case. I believe I have presided over the court with great character, and I will continue to serve with integrity, diligence, humility and common sense. If you have not had the opportunity to appear in the municipal court, I encourage you to ask your friends and neighbors who have appeared in front of me. I am confident that they will tell you that I treated them with respect and dignity and handled their case fairly. I also have more work to do. I am implementing programs that improve the functioning of the court and have a positive impact on our community as a whole. I ask for your vote so that I can continue to make our municipal court more transparent, efficient, and effective.
The Spring election will be held on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018.
Find your polling location here.
Learn about Rebecca Mason’s challenger, John Buchaklian.
Editor’s note: In the effort of transparency, Rebecca Mason is the legal counsel for Racine County Eye.