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Wisconsin Court of Appeals contest is not in Milwaukee County, but is partly about it

two candidates sit at a table
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Waukesha County Circuit Judge Maria Lazar holds a book, as Appeals Court Judge Lori Kornblum listens during a March 23 candidate forum in West Bend.

One of the more contentious elections this spring is for a state appeals court seat just outside of Milwaukee County. District II of Wisconsin's appellate court system is headquartered in Waukesha but bends from Sheboygan down to Kenosha — covering 12 eastern counties in all.

The officially nonpartisan contest has taken on the partisan tone common to many Wisconsin judicial elections.

When Appellate Judge Paul Reilly resigned from District II last fall, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers chose Lori Kornblum for the seat. For 23 years, Kornblum was an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County. Then she was in private practice and taught law classes.

At a candidate forum last week in West Bend, Kornblum said she loves being an appeals judge and emphasized that she has spent her career keeping communities safe.

"I was a prosecutor for more than 20 years in Milwaukee, until 2014, bringing sex offenders and child abusers to justice. I worked with law enforcement protecting victims and children," she said.

In her own law firm, Kornblum says she advocated for people with disabilities, seniors and foster children.

Kornblum's opponent in the April 5 appellate election is Maria Lazar, who was first elected as a Waukesha County circuit judge seven years ago. Lazar said she's proud of her work there.

"I have an established, proven track record of written decisions on the bench, and I've been affirmed over 90% of the time," she said.

Before becoming a judge, Lazar was an assistant state attorney general and a private practice lawyer focusing on business and civil law cases.

But like many judicial elections these days, even for the relatively low profile state appeals court, the District II race is about more than candidates with different legal experience.

The contenders are also known by the endorsements they highlight and commercials they show.

Kornblum's been endorsed by industrial and teachers unions; State Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet, who's considered a liberal; and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.

The Milwaukee police union endorses Lazar, and so do seven current or past state supreme court justices who are considered conservatives, including Michael Gableman. He's leading a controversial probe of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin.

Lazar recently started airing an ad that links Kornblum to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. The DA has been in the headlines since last November, over the issue of bail in a prior case for Darrell Brooks, later accused of killing six people at the Waukesha holiday parade.

On camera, Lazar says, "I'm running against Gov. Evers handpicked candidate, who worked for DA John Chisholm."

Kornblum responded at the candidate forum. "I would challenge anyone to say that because I worked for John Chisholm that I was personally responsible for the Waukesha parade tragedy. Because if that's what the Lazar supporters are saying, that is just dead wrong," she said.

Kornblum has also taken to the airwaves with an ad slamming Lazar's sentencing in the case of man found guilty of second-degree sexual assault.

An announcer says, "Prosecutors asked for seven years. Lazar said, 'It's not like he held a knife to someone's neck he didn't know and raped her.' Maria Lazar sides with criminals, not us."

Kornblum's ad says the man only served a few months in jail. Lazar responded over the weekend by saying the man served 11 months, plus is on five years probation, and had to register for the rest of his life as a sex offender.

This came after Lazar criticized the ad at the West Bend forum. "My opponent's ad that she's running shows several things — one, she has no judicial experience. She cannot read a judgement of conviction," Lazar told the in-person and Zoom audience.

Meanwhile, Kornblum has asked Lazar to tell her supporters to stop airing a second commercial, one funded by an outside group, that Kornblum says retraumatizes the Waukesha parade victims.

"So this just shows Judge Lazar's callous disregard of the victims. And I know this is an independent expenditure. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on it. But Judge Lazar, I am asking and demanding you to tell these people to take that ad down," Kornblum said.

For one more political twist to the appeals court race, Lazar's campaign spokesperson is Matt Walker, son of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The elder Walker sent out a tweet this month, backing the Waukesha County jurist.

The winner of next week's District II appeals court race will serve a six-year term.

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