Thursday, March 31, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

Jean Kies is working hardest to  take 
 Branch 45 from Walker appointee
There are only two combative Milwaukee circuit court contests April 5. One is an easy call and the other has split the progressive and grassroots community.

The easier call is Jean Kies, a private practice lawyer who has done strong work in general law and specifically in attacking sex trafficking. Now that her children are grown she is listening to friends who have long seen her personality and judgment fitting the bench.  Lawyer Lew Wasserman, who ran for the DA’s job in 2006, is not only handling her campaign but is married to her.  

Her opponent was appointed to Branch 45 by Gov. Scott Walker. Perhaps not surprisingly, Michelle Ackerman Havas is hugging close to GOP leaders in her campaign, but because she served more than a decade as assistant district attorney in Milwaukee, focusing on parental rights and termination at children’s court, she also has a following in the general legal community. Her appointment made her a sitting judge, which brings some fairly automatic endorsements.

But in Milwaukee right now, being appointed to the bench by Walker is a negative. Historically that has been true whichever party had the governor’s office.  Circuit court positions are curious things hereabouts.  Once the public elects you it is almost a lifelong tenure since you are seldom opposed or attacked unless you step headlong into controversy. The voters like to make the choice, and appointees from both parties are most vulnerable in their first run for office, as Havas is facing now.

She is also openly close to Rebecca Bradley, which right now is an even bigger negative that being associated with Walker.

That is why her open embrace of Republican leaders may be particularly harmful in Milwaukee. Particularly if voters remember she was appointed to the bench because Walker elevated the previous occupant to the appeals court – yup, Rebecca Bradley who within months he elevated again to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where she has already engaged in political maneuvering.  If you haven’t read her abusive and  rash writings published when she was in college or followed her evasive responses to the press while pretending to be objective, you can’t possible understand what a travesty it would be if she edged ahead April 5 of a respected opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg.

Bradley did win her first test with voters in Milwaukee – but it took $167,000 from Club for Growth channels to clear the way with ads, mailers and the like.  Other appointees by this governor, even some respected lawyers, have faced hard roads in their first election, and so have appointees by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.  The public likes to decide these things for a six year term. Then it sort of lets the renewals slide by.

That’s why the other circuit court race has become a distressing decision.  For the first time in my memory the Milwaukee Area Labor Council has endorsed a Walker appointee to the bench – Paul Rifelj (the “j” I’m told is silent).  Apparently he gave a strong interview, suggesting he is not a Walker conservative or ideologically tainted as a judge.

He also served as a Wisconsin State Public Defender while working as a private defense attorney and was a Waukesha public defender before that, mostly involving children’s court according to resumes.  Simultaneously April 5, his wife, Kelly K. Rifelj, is running for a seat on the Wauwatosa Common Council.

So Paul Rifelj has taken pains to separate himself from Walker while Havas seems happy to embrace party support even into her campaign operations and funding.  That has thrown into hard question her objectivity. Circuit court judges meander from first assignment to many others so once you are a judge the impartiality or the damage you can spread are enormous.

Interestingly, giving outsiders a sense of the depth of issues involving children’s court, Kies did a lot of work there as private attorney but says she and Havas never met.

“He makes a great presentation,” people both in and out of the Rifelj camp tell me.  I recall hearing the same thing four years ago when his April 5 opponent for Branch 31, Hannah Dugan, was endorsed by the  labor council for another judgeship (which she lost to Lindsey Grady who also had strong Democratic  Party roots).

Hannah Dugan working to take
Branch 31 from Walker appointee.
And that is why Branch 31 seems to have split the community.  Dugan has earned a reputation as “a tough cookie,” as one of her admirers said, and a strong champion of union rights.  But in 28 years as lawyer – and past president of the Milwaukee Bar Association — she has taken on the sort of assignments that can make enemies and also prove competence, breadth and ethical integrity – in other words, public service that reaches way past the surface of endorsements.

She served for a few years as head of Catholic Charities, but she was also chosen as key part of the Milwaukee County Ethics Board and the City of Milwaukee Ethics Board, helping revise both organizations’ code of conduct. She chaired the Wisconsin Judicial Commission and conducted attorney discipline hearings as a Wisconsin Supreme Court referee. 

These are difficult areas of legal service, requiring steel as well as fairness. If there is a knock against her it is that she long has been eager for a judicial post.

In fact, there is some confusion about this candidacy for Branch 31.  Originally she announced as the lone candidate for Branch 44 after Daniel Konkol announced his retirement.  But then a friend, Gwen Connolly, stepped into the race, and Dugan switched to Branch 31, where another Daniel – Noonan that is — had decided to retire from judgment. 

She was alone in that race as well until Walker stepped in and appointed Rifelj who now has the advantage of running against Dugan as the incumbent, trusting many voters   won’t know that, like Havas, he was the governor’s pick and not the voters.

Several liberals and court observers have contacted me about this race, encouraging me to not decide based on Walker but on merits. Indeed, I have discovered nothing to fault Rifelj qualities as a judge, though I have less knowledge to work with since many of the cases he was involved in are closed to public inquiry. 

Part of that knowledge about him includes negatives --- he was recruited for Walker and then early endorsed by Rebecca Bradley.  Given what I know about her behavior and bias, that remains a strike against him.

As for Dugan, I have long known her and appreciate how her decision process would transfer to the bench.  So Kies obviously gets my nod, and Dugan has earned an edge over Rifelj.

WHERE do you live and WHO are you voting for April 5? 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for 

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