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Wisconsin Court of Appeals' District I candidates talk partisanship, judicial philosophy in forum

candidates sit at a table
Maayan Silver
Appellate Judge William Brash and attorney Sara Geenen are running for District I of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

It may not be as closely watched as the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, but there’s another judicial election for Milwaukeeans to pay attention to in April. It’s for Wisconsin Court of Appeals, the intermediate court that reviews decisions by the trial or "fact-finding" courts.

What is the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and what does it do?

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals is composed of 16 judges from four districts. The four districts are headquartered in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Wausau and Madison. The judges are elected to six-year terms in district-wide, non-partisan April elections.

The primary function of the Court of Appeals is to correct errors that occurred at the circuit court level. The published opinions of the court are binding precedent until overruled by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court has recognized that the Court of Appeals has a "law defining and law development" function.

Who's on the ballot?

Milwaukee County voters will choose between incumbent District 1 Court of Appeals Judge William Brash and labor and employment lawyer Sara Geenen. The two faced off at a Milwaukee Bar Association forum on March 15. The candidates were quizzed on what distinguishes them.

Attorney Sara Geenen's campaign website

Select endorsements for Geenen: Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), Democratic Party of Milwaukee County, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera Action Fund, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, dozens of local government representatives

Judge William Brash's campaign website

Select endorsements for Brash: Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, all 15 other court of appeals judges, and dozens of current and former circuit court judges, former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, the Milwaukee Police Association

At the candidate forum, Brash emphasized his decades as a judge. “Until you've done it, you can talk about understanding it,” he said. “But until you've actually encompassed that and dealt with it on a daily basis, it's harder to understand and and dealing with and addressing those issues and the pressures that are on the public defender's that are on the district attorneys that are on this, the court system itself.”

Geenen admitted she has no judicial experience but positioned herself as an outsider with a “fresh perspective.” She’s been practicing law for 16 years as a labor and employment attorney.

"It's my job to help regular people, regular folks vindicate their rights make their workplaces better to protect their rights at work,” she said. “I've practiced in dozens of courts across the country, administrative bodies, both the state and federal, various administrative agencies, and I am incredibly proud of my work.”

Before going to law school, Geenen was a field organizer and worked to help elect former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. In 2015, Brash was appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

Like many modern judicial races — partisanship found its way into Wednesday’s discussion.

Geenen raised concerns that Brash held a fundraiser with individuals in attendance from the Bradley Foundation, which primarily funds conservative causes. The Bradley Foundation says its president, Richard Graber, was there, but in his personal capacity, and that the event was not hosted by the foundation.

Geenen also pointed to a campaign email sent by Brash, "that said and I quote, ‘The conservative balance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is at stake in April, liberals have their sights set on taking the court. They are doing everything they can to turn out the vote in Milwaukee County for that race."

Geenen continued reading from the email: "Turning out the vote in that race is a huge part of their plan. By creating a strong grassroots campaign, we will not only reelect Judge Brash but turn out the conservative vote, thereby keeping the Supreme Court in conservative hands.’”

Brash responded that he didn’t authorize that language. He said when that email came to his attention, he contacted his strategists and asked them to remove it from his literature.

“But Ms. Geenen talks about rhetoric and language and what I did find out through this process is that I'm a right-wing extremist, which I didn't know until I started this campaign,” pondered Brash. “All right. So, I don't know who decided that in her literature. But I'm assuming that it was somebody other than her in that regard.”

Geenen replied that she believes her materials say that Brash is "supported by" right wing extremists. “That part is absolutely accurate,” she said. “Judge Brash’s original fundraiser was attended by current and former heads the Republican Party of the Bradley Foundation, and those connected with the group WILL.”

WILL is the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty that has sued to block everything from absentee ballot drop boxes to mask mandates.

The moderator asked Brash if he’d recuse himself from cases involving the Republican Party, including on election challenge cases. That’s when a judge doesn’t hear a case because of a conflict of interest, including financial stakes. He said he doesn’t believe he’s ever had an election challenge case, but he attends events held by Republicans and Democrats.

Brash added, ”I guess, if I were to recuse myself from everything, then it leaves me out of doing anything, you know, from that standpoint.” He said that when you start to look at economic interests, or people contributing to your campaign, “I think that gives rise to other issues that I do take a look at and making determinations with regards to recusal.”

Geenen agreed that having a conversation with someone or attending an event doesn’t automatically mean a judge will be more or less favorable on a matter. But she said there need to be stronger rules in place than to let judges be the final arbiters on whether they’re fit to hear a case.

“We need rules that are better than the honor system, because I don't know that, that always works. We're taking somebody's word that they can be neutral when they've benefited financially. We need rules,” said Geenen.

The candidates were also asked to describe their judicial philosophies. Brash said he applies the laws established by the Legislature, state Supreme Court and the state and U.S. constitutions to the facts of each case.

Geenen said she always thought “judicial philosophy” is one of those labels that doesn’t say much. But she said she views courts as a check and balance to the Legislature.

Voters will go to the polls on April 4.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a response from the Bradley Foundation about the Brash fundraising event.

Check out WUWM's voter guide to learn about other races on the ballot and how to vote.


Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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