One-on-One: Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Everett Mitchell
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - On Tuesday, voters around the state will select the two Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates who will move on to the April General Election.
Judge Everett Mitchell is one of four candidates on the ballot running for Wisconsin Supreme Court. He has served as a Dane County Circuit Court judge since 2016 and currently presides over the juvenile division.
NBC15 plans to sit down with all four candidates to discuss their top priorities and why they believe they should serve on the Supreme Court.
Watch an extended interview with Everett Mitchell:
Leigh Mills: What do you want voters to know about you and your priorities if elected to the bench?
Judge Everett Mitchell: I want the voters of Wisconsin to understand that our state really deserves a justice that is able to make sure all of the issues are on the table. And there’s been a lot energy about reproductive choice, and fair maps and the idea of voting, right? I think with this last election in November, many Wisconsinites felt their voices being taken from them. On the other hand, there’s a whole other conversation in our community where people are asking what about criminal justice reform? What about environmental justice? How do we make sure people and families are treated fairly and given access to the courts? How do we know that our justice system will work for people? And be able to make sure that it can lead to success in people’s lives? So I think those two conversations... I want Wisconsin voters to know — I’m the one candidate that has solutions for bridging that gap so that we can make sure all people are represented at the table and more importantly, represented in how we think about justice in our courts.
LM: And I was going to ask, what sets you apart from the other three candidates, and it sounds like that is the biggest thing. Are there are other things you would point to that set you apart?
EM: I think my commitment to doing things, right. So for me I have this idea that justice isn’t just what you say, it’s what you do. So it’s my commitment — not just to following what I do on the bench, but it’s the work off the bench and the multiplicity of experiences that intersect that gives you a different lens. So whether I’ve worked with men and women coming out of prison, building restorative justice programs to reduce recidivism from 70 to 15, or running a high risk drug court program so that you understand that both rural and urban concerns about fentanyl poisonings and death and heroin and its impact on so many people’s lives. Or to the idea of fighting for getting handcuffs off of young people so that they can come into court and the court not be the most traumatizing place in their lives and integrating with leadership a trauma-informed model that’s seen so many great changes in our system that brings life and joy. So I’m not going to run around talking about how many people I locked up. I’m going to be able to tell the voters how many futures I’ve saved. And it’s the saving of futures that remind us, if you can keep a young person out of prison, then that means they have not committed a crime and they haven’t hurt anybody. I believe in being proactive rather than being reactive. Reactive is just sentencing people. Proactive is stopping crime before it even has an opportunity to begin.
LM: And so serving as a judge in the Dane Co. court system would be very different from being on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. How do those efforts you’re talking about at a more local level translate to our highest court in the state?
EM: Again, the Supreme Court is the court over all of our courts in the state, so they are responsible for things like judicial education, they can pull together committees to help resolve conflicts and things that are happening in our court system. They are the ones responsible for setting budgeting priorities for our court system. So just because I’m moving away maybe from the duties of doing direct with individuals doesn’t mean the strategic things that I’ve been doing off the bench and on the bench have to cease. I think if anything I’m bringing a new perspective that does not exist with our current makeup of our supreme court and bringing a very different lens to how we can make sure... you know, I tell a lot of voters, especially those who, when I go to Milwaukee, I tell them I can’t wait to come to 53206, which is the most incarcerated zip code maybe one or two in the entire country, and coming to them and saying, ‘your justice is here.’ Not just your justice but your justice is here. And we can change that narrative and this is one of the ways that we can do it.
LM: Let’s talk abut the fact that this open seat is non-partisan but it will shape the ideological makeup of the court and how many justices tend to lean either conservative or liberal. There are a number of political operatives who have said the Supreme Court has been drawn into the political fray. Do you think that is the new reality?
EM: I have never, ever had politics enter into my decision making. And maybe that has a lot to do with the cases I have before me. I have civil cases, family law cases, but you don’t ask what party are you bringing this case with. Are you Republican? Are you Democrat? Are you Independent? Green Party? No. There is a person in front of you, they’re bringing facts to you, you have a body of law that you have to assess this issue, and you look to the facts and who’s bringing those facts to you. And sometimes you make the rulings consistent with the rule of law, and as circuit court judges, sometimes the decisions we have to make are discretionary, so you make those discretionary decisions based on values that make sense to you in the moment, so no, I’ve never made a political decision in my work on the bench.
LM: My conversation I just had with Daniel Kelly, he talked about his perspective in approaching law as a constitutional conservative and defined it and explained that on the high court, you have two ways of viewing how you decide an issue. So it sounds like what he’s talking about would resonate with you. Do you feel you fall into one of those two camps in terms of how you issue an opinion on a specific case?
EM: I’ve consistently thought that anybody who’s a judge should use a bifocal approach to the law. So that means there are times when you have to have the vision of ‘What did the originalists mean?’ and then you have to have an interpretation about, ‘so what does this mean for people now.’ And so we often say that’s an originalist versus a living document view of the constitution. And I think as an African American I think about how Justice Thurgood Marshall when he was with the NAACP used the 14th Amendment as a lens to change desegregation. And lead toward making sure that we had integrated schools but he was using an originalist interpretation saying the 14th Amendment was about equal protection and due process but we need to apply it to the real issue of segregation and the impact that it had. And that argument led to the overturning of Plessy versus Ferguson. So the idea that you and I sit in this theater together is a reminder that sometimes you have to use the power of the originalist argument but you also have to have the ability to apply it to people’s lives so that we can actually move our society forward.
LM: Which brings up a good point because there will be a number of issues that will come before the Supreme Court. One of them most likely will be related to abortion. Do you believe the 1849 abortion ban should be overturned? Enforced? Is it outdated? Where do you fall on that issue?
EM: Well if I say there, I’m kind of giving my tips to another direction, so I can’t do that because I don’t want to have to lose the ability to hear the facts, and I think the women and communities in Wisconsin that believe in reproductive choice need to make sure that I have the ability to hear that case if I’m elected as justice. I will said just, you know, I grew up with the Roe decision being the standard for rights in our society and that’s what I grew up under, so the idea that the decision that was rendered in Dobbs was to me an act of judicial conservative activism and that activism was defined by this, they went in and took away a right that nobody was asking for them to take. The society had moved beyond where they might have been in 1973, and the majority of Americans were okay with having reproductive choice, so I completely disagree with the conclusion that the majority rendered and I think the dissent spoke very passionately and powerfully about that right, that decision and what it then led to and the consequences that we have seen throughout our entire country being destabilized because that one particular decision made by some conservative judicial activists.
LM: Is there anything else that you want to bring up? Because I want to be mindful of the fact that, oh, we have four minutes. Is there anything else in terms of your record that you want to make sure you point out aside from someone going to your website and looking you up?
EM: One of the things I’m proud of is doing the trauma-informed approach but being able to work with our law enforcement officers and community members to be able to... and the kids. I want to be sure people understand that we were able to reduce juvenile car thefts by 47% in Dane Co. 47 percent, and that was not done by a judge being in isolation. I’ve been in our community asking and looking for help and resources for our court system to be aligned better, and when I saw that the data was starting to show that we were trending down, it was because we brought everyone to the table, including kids, and asked them: ‘what do you need from us? What can be helpful for you if what can we give you?’
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