The four candidates for Columbia County Circuit Court judge gathered Thursday before an overflowing room at the Portage Public Library to discuss legal philosophy and their experience.
Attorney Steven Sarbacker, 53, of Lewiston, claimed the most legal experience of the candidates, having been an attorney for 23 years, seven years as a Columbia County assistant district attorney. He said that he is the only candidate of the four who has not been disqualified in the past year, following the retirement of Judge Alan White in September.
“My three opponents here went through the appointment process and were declined by the governor’s office,” said Sarbacker, in his turn at a question about the significance of residents voting for judge. “After being vetted by a high-priced law firm down in Madison, they didn’t make the cut, so now we’re to the election.”
Sarbacker touched on the breadth of judicial decisions made by circuit court judges from common civil disputes to family matters to criminal sentencings, to the ruling by Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Daniel George deciding what was to be done with serial killer Jeffery Dahmer’s brain after he was murdered in Columbia Correctional Institution.
Brenda Yaskal, 42, assistant corporation counsel for Sauk County and former assistant district attorney for Columbia County, highlighted her experience in social work and with at-risk youth prior to becoming an attorney when she often was the Columbia County district attorney’s expert in child welfare cases and criminal cases involving sexual abuse and neglect.
“I’ve dealt with people in happy situations, and I’ve dealt with people in sad situations,” said Yaskal, “and it is important and imperative for the judge who takes this position — who is elected to this position — to be able to have that temperament and personality to treat the people who come before him or her with respect.”
Addressing Sarbacker’s comments, Yaskal said the judicial appointment process is “an extremely political process, and as he said, this is a non-partisan position and it should not come down to party.”
Emails between appointment committee members acquired by a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that as part of committee members’ briefing, the candidates’ political affiliation was taken into consideration.
Troy Cross, 45, of Portage, was the best positioned of the four candidates to speak about the Columbia County OWI Treatment Court, which was started in 2014 to handle cases involving intoxicated driving. Having worked as an assistant district attorney in Columbia County for 19 years, Cross is the last founding member still working with the OWI Court team.
“Treatment courts have a unique ability to help people without not holding them accountable, and without not incarcerating them,” Cross said. “For drunken driving court, for years it has been ‘put them in jail and when they get out, hope they don’t re-offend.’”
Cross said the program replaces a straight escalation of sentencing with repeat offenses with an option of initial jail time followed by required treatment, probation and supervision.
“We’re seeing some good benefits for not re-offending and that is the whole goal,” Cross said. “And even the people who have not successfully made it through, we have seen drastic improvements — more home life, better home life. There was an individual who went through hunting season for the first time sober and was describing how different it was.”
Sarbacker agreed that treatment court was “a great idea, but could be a lot better,” telling the audience that when he was out on New Year’s Eve, he met someone who had graduated from the treatment court, was out, drinking and had their license.
“The problem is that it gets people at the end of the system,” he said.
Instead of the current system, Sarbacker proposed possible changes such as an more stringent bail monitoring program with daily breathalyzer tests, as he has seen in another county.
“I would like to see the treatment court expanded and combined with the drug treatment court into a bail monitoring program, because it is all about public safety and the average time for a case in this county is over a year,” he said.
The Tuesday morning OWI Court sessions have been an unnecessary use of valuable court time, Sarbacker said, with it being unreasonable to expect people to stop drinking in exchange for “pizza coupons,” referring to small prizes that are given to participants as tokens of support for positive progress through the program.
At the end of the forum, time allowed for a contributed question selected from audience suggestions, with the result being: “How do you feel about drug possession — jail or what?”
“We’re talking about many types of drugs here — heroin, cocaine, marijuana — and there are different penalties that are available to us as judges to impose what makes sense,” said candidate Cliff Burdon, of Poynette, a 47-year-old former Columbia County assistant district attorney and defense attorney in private practice. “In drug cases, you are looking at defendants who have rehabilitative needs — clearly — but that all hinges on what is the defendant’s take on acceptance of responsibility in the case and what the facts of the case are.”
Agreeing with the other candidates and also echoing answers to a question of whether systemic issues have prevented pursuit of justice, Burdon returned to the point that as a judge, none of them would be in a place to rewrite the law, but only to apply it as it has been written.
“I can tell you that what we are trying to do here,” Burdon said, “is make this county a better place, and to do that we need to make sure that if people are being convicted of possessing drugs, we need to at least give them the tools to address their addiction and turn their lives around, and if they are unwilling to do that, or if they are bringing them into the community and distributing them, there is a different set of penalties for those people.”
A Feb. 20 primary election will narrow the field to two candidates for the April 3 general election. The remaining two candidates will be invited by the Columbia County Democrats and Columbia County Bar Association to a debate at the Columbus City Council Chambers on March 15, tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m.
The forum Thursday was presented by the Columbia County Bar Association and the Columbia County Democratic Party.