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Retired Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Daniel George moderates a judicial candidate forum Thursday at Columbus City Hall.

Columbia County voters heard from circuit court candidates Troy Cross and Brenda Yaskal on a variety of issues during a forum Thursday at Columbus City Hall.

Yaskal and Cross are running for the vacant judicial seat in the April 3 election. The seat has been vacant since September after the retirement of Judge Alan White. Cross serves as one of the county’s assistant district attorneys and has worked for the county for nearly 20 years. Yaskal is Sauk County’s assistant corporation counsel but previously served as a prosecutor in Columbia County for 10 years.

Thursday’s forum, hosted by the Columbia County Bar Association and the Democratic Party of Columbia County, lasted about 90 minutes. It was the second of consecutive forums Cross and Yaskal participated in, following a session Wednesday at Lodi High School. Retired Columbia County Judge Daniel George moderated the forum, allowing candidates one minute, thirty seconds to answer each question. Most of the questions came from multiple county organizations and from written inquires the candidates didn’t have time to answer at a previous forum. Thursday’s session concluded with a few questions from audience members.

Both candidates were asked about their greatest legal accomplishments. Yaskal said her experience working on CHIPS (Child in Need of Protective Services) cases during her time in the district attorney’s office was a rewarding experience. She worked with families and hopefully improved the lives of children dealing with a difficult home life, she said.

“As a prosecutor you have to deal with families and get them through,” Yaskal said. “Not punish them, like you do in criminal court, but give them the tools to correct their behavior and get through crises.”

Cross said his 19 years as one of the county’s assistant district attorneys is his benchmark accomplishment. Cross began the position straight out of law school.

“I’ve had the privilege to work in the district attorney’s office and even if I failed, I learned from those cases,” Cross said. “I’ve been able to help victims and keep the public safe and I hope I can continue that as your next judge.”

Cross and Yaskal also addressed their strengths and weaknesses. Yaskal said she’s hardworking, honest and ethical with a desire to learn. However, she admitted to sometimes taking on too much and must learn to delegate duties. Cross said he’s a good listener, dedicated researcher, has strong knowledge of laws, and is very familiar with the county. Being a longtime prosecutor, however, Cross has advocated for one side. If elected judge, Cross said he would have to step back and let both sides run their cases.

When addressing the top qualities of being a judge, Cross said, “knowledge of the legal system is primary; you need to know what’s going on so you don’t get led astray. You also have to be the decision-maker and stand by your decisions and the third thing is being a good listener.”

Yaskal said she believes listening and showing respect to everyone involved in cases is vital. She also said the ability to reason and be impartial is crucial.

According to Yaskal, if elected, she would be the first female judge to serve Columbia County. The opportunity to be a role model for young women would drive her on the bench.

“It would be the greatest thing in the world to serve my community and to be able to do so with a specialized skill,” Yaskal said.

Concerning the county’s case backlog, Cross said he would work to get more through the system but would consider what can be delayed and what can’t. Yaskal said while the backlog puts pressure on the system, every case deserves time and its day in court.

When asked about the high rate of incarceration in Wisconsin, Cross said he’s open to creative sentencing and willing to “go outside the box” for certain crimes, but can’t ignore established laws. Yaskal said, in some cases, she would consider probation as a first option depending on the severity of the crime.

Regarding juvenile crime, Yaskal said education, alcohol and drug counseling and job training are important factors in reducing crime. She argued that if children are busy, they’re less likely to commit crimes. Cross agreed education is important, but said treatment courts could also be utilized and incentives should be in place so children are deterred from breaking laws.

Both candidates would like to see more funding for drug treatment courts, especially with the area’s opioid drug problem. Cross said treatment courts can be very effective and may reduce jail time. He talked about initial success he’s seen with a drunken driving court.

When asked if they would maintain judicial independence, Yaskal said she would not try to legislate from the bench and Cross said a judge is similar to a referee.

“You have to make sure there is a level playing field,” he said.

Regarding plea bargaining, both agreed it is an essential part of the judicial system. Each candidate would be open to plea bargains, but said each case has unique factors.

“The defendant has to be fully aware of the consequences,” Yaskal said. “You have to look at each case individually to make that determination.”

Contact Kevin Damask at 608-963-7323 or on Twitter @kdamask