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Mario White

Mario White was a state assistant public defender for about 10 years before starting a job last month as a Dane County court commissioner. 

It was a deceptively beautiful spring day that convinced Mario White to move from the heat of Texas and Oklahoma and a job teaching high school math to sometimes-frigid Madison to pursue a career in law.

White, who would end up working for the state Public Defender’s Office for about 10 years, decided when he was about 25 to stop what he was doing and head to law school. He applied at UW-Madison and was accepted, then came for a visit.

“It was in April,” White said. “I think it was one of the first really nice spring days, so a group of us went out to the (Union) Terrace and we were out there watching the boats on the lake, and everybody was out and about and I thought, ‘Man, this is great, this is where I want to be.’ And then 10 months later was that first winter, which was not something that I was used to coming from Oklahoma and Texas.”

Despite the sometimes harsh winters, White, 39, said he feels at home in Madison and “now it’s hard to imagine living someplace else.”

White was born in Oklahoma and lived in Tahlequah, Muskogee and finally McAlester as his mother earned her college degree and took jobs as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor. His last two years of high school were at a science and math school in Oklahoma City, then he got his undergraduate degrees in math and history at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

White was teaching high school math in Dallas when he left for law school at UW-Madison in 2005.

“I didn’t know anybody up here, had no connections to Madison,” he said. Fortunately, that’s changed with time, and White now has friends to brunch with on weekends and is active in professional organizations. He’s also an adjunct professor of law at UW-Madison.

Last month, White started a new job as one of 11 Dane County court commissioners. In Wisconsin, court commissioners have some duties that are similar to those of elected judges and are often seen presiding at initial appearances in criminal cases, in small claims matters and in certain family court proceedings, among other duties described in state law.

Q: What made you explore law as a career?

A: Truthfully, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a degree in math and I had a degree in history, and I had decided by my senior year of college that I did not want to get a PhD in math. So I looked at law school as an opportunity to learn something that would make me open up some more career goals and options for me.

So not necessarily to practice law?

Yeah, in fact, when I went to law school I didn’t think I would practice. I thought I would go to work for a government agency in some capacity. I didn’t see myself as a courtroom lawyer.

What did you like most about working in the public defender’s office?

The fact that I could, as an attorney, walk down the hallway and get advice and counsel from people that have been practicing for two to three decades. I would have a situation that I would think would be completely brand new and novel and I could walk down the hallway and I could ask somebody who’s been in that same situation and get their advice and brainstorm cases with other people. There’s really much of a shared sense, a family sense when it came to cases. It’s not uncommon for people to pull three other attorneys aside and talk through a case that’s about to go to trial. I thought that was fantastic.

How much did you enjoy being a trial lawyer?

I loved it. I mean, any time I had a trial, when I was actually in a trial, that’s when I felt most like a lawyer. Most of what we do is negotiating pleas, which has its merits, but honestly when you’re in front of a group of 12 people I got a rush out of that.

Is that something you’re going to miss?

Yeah. Oh yeah.

As a court commissioner, what sorts of things do you do now?

I’m still new, but primarily what I will be doing and have been doing is family cases and small claims cases. It’s a much different world than the criminal defense world and it’s a different perspective because I’m not an advocate for someone. I’m making sure that both sides are being treated fairly. So it’s a different perspective.

What do you think people want to see when they appear before a court commissioner?

I think people want to see someone that’s listening, someone that’s giving them an opportunity to state their case. People that come to court want to feel like they’ve been heard. Obviously, like in a small claims matter, someone is not going to like the decision, because they’re not going to get what they want. But I think if people feel like they’ve been heard and like they’ve been treated fairly, then I think that that gives them confidence in the legal system.

— Interview by Ed Treleven

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.