Voters will select a new judge April 3 to serve on the Columbia County Circuit Court, filling a role that has been vacant since September, when Judge Alan White retired.
A field of four was narrowed in the February primary to Columbia County Assistant District Attorney Troy Cross, 45, and 42-year-old Sauk County Assistant Corporation Counsel Brenda Yaskal.
Both candidates requested appointment to the seat by Gov. Scott Walker, who ultimately declined to appoint an interim judge. As a result, Columbia County was left to operate with two full-time judges. Both candidates said the lengthy and detailed application process benefited them.
“I think I was better prepared for this because I have thought about it so much beforehand,” Yaskal said of her application to the governor, which totaled 45 pages and covered everything from her background, references and essays on legal philosophy.
“I have considered my qualifications and why I was qualified, because I had to explain all that earlier,” Yaskal said of her candidacy.
Cross, whose application to Walker was 70 pages, said there is a significant difference between running a campaign and seeking the governor’s appointment.
“The difference between running and the application process is that you’re applying for a job, but your hiring person is all of the voters in the county on that particular day, versus the governor,” he said. “So, we have a lot more to appeal to, or for.”
Cross is running for a fourth time, and was a candidate for each of the other county judicial seats in 2006, 2011 and 2015. He has spent 19 years with the Columbia County District Attorney’s Office and built a reputation as the office’s resident expert on drunken driving prosecutions. Despite the distinction, Cross emphasized during a candidate forum in February that his work is varied and legal careers are not necessarily defined by a particular expertise.
“As a prosecutor I’m representing a side,” said Cross. “The defense attorneys are all representing a side. They all have different clients, it just happens I have the same client over and over.”
Yaskal also worked in the Columbia County District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor for 10 years before joining the Sauk County Corporation Counsel’s office in June 2016.
Shortly after Yaskal left Columbia County for Sauk County, the Sauk County Corporation Counsel retired, leaving her and another attorney to handle the county’s caseload, making it similar to what she had been accustomed to during her time at the Columbia County DA’s Office.
“I have missed doing criminal cases,” Yaskal said. “They are unique, they are challenging, and they are emotionally draining sometimes — maybe I don’t miss that part — but with a criminal case, you are hoping to make a situation better in addition to holding the defendant accountable.”
An issue that has resurfaced with new urgency in this year’s judicial election is a backlog of cases, in which Columbia County courts are addressing unresolved matters dating back to 2013 and 2014.
“It’s going to be very much incumbent on whoever is elected to work hard to try and correct that,” Yaskal said. “Obviously, being down a judge all these months is a great contributor to that.”
Yaskal said she would work to keep things moving and ensure cases are scheduled and proceeding toward trial or a resolution.
Cross said other options may need to be considered.
“I’m not going to be very popular for saying it: There’s always night court,” he said. “We don’t have night court, but if you look at the statutes, it’s available. Or you could add on some time to the day. You wouldn’t have to do it all the time, but it would help you run through some of these things.”
Since both candidates have worked with Columbia County law enforcement in the past on criminal prosecutions, they likely will see some of those same people in their courtroom. Both said they can set aside their past experiences and working relationships.
“I worked very closely with law enforcement when I was a prosecutor and to an extent, I do now as well,” Yaskal said. “But because they could ask me questions, I would help guide, and I would also be very blunt with them if they did something wrong or if they didn’t have enough to bring a case.”
She said she might hold law enforcement to a higher standard than the general public when it comes to issues before the court “because they know better.”
Cross said in a trial situation, the likeliness of a judge to trust a member of law enforcement should be irrelevant, since it’s the jury’s job to determine the reliability of a witness, with specific instructions to ignore whatever a judge may think on the matter.
“We’re doing a job. I don’t always agree with the officers in terms of whether they arrest somebody or not, if they charge them, or what they charge them with, and it’s not my job as a prosecutor to be a rubber stamp for that,” he said. “I make my own decisions based on what the law is and what I believe I can prove.”
Both candidates have agreed to participate in a forum hosted by the Lodi Optimist Club at noon March 14 at Lodi High School. A debate will follow at 6 p.m. March 15 at Columbus City Hall.