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Rebecca Dallet speaks to Dane County Bar Association

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Rebecca Dallet says her experience as a criminal prosecutor and circuit court judge has prepared her for the state's high court. She answered questions from members of the Dane County Bar Association earlier this month in Madison.

The first case Judge Rebecca Dallet presided over was in the 1980s. She went by Rebecca Frank then, and couldn’t vote yet.

The defendant before her was Mr. Burry, her high school social studies teacher in Shaker Heights, Ohio, whom her classmates had just arrested.

“I remember them coming in, putting on the handcuffs — so somebody was the sheriff, somebody was his attorney and somebody was the prosecutor. I was the judge,” Dallet said.

She presided over the mock trial alongside a real sitting judge who helped teach Dallet and her classmates about the judicial process.

It was the first time the Milwaukee County judge, former prosecutor and candidate for the state Supreme Court considered pursuing a career in law.

“I really just got a sense of how important it was, how meaningful it was for the people who came in front of him,” Dallet said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. “And I feel that every day ... I really make an effort to balance the need to get through the cases with the understanding that for everybody who comes in front of me that case is the most important case to them and they are not there because they want to be.”

Dallet, 48, is running for a 10-year term on the state’s highest court against Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock. Her campaign has focused largely on her experience in courtrooms since 1994: 11 years as a state prosecutor, 10 as a judge, three as a law school professor, two years each as a federal prosecutor and a federal law clerk and one year as the first female presiding court commissioner in Milwaukee County.

Her career in the state’s justice system can be traced back to the seed that mock trial planted during Dallet’s sophomore year in high school. But she also credits the responsibility she took on at an early age growing up with a single mother after her parents divorced when she was 6 and her younger sister was 3.

“I really lived with my mom and my sister, and my mom worked really hard,” she said. “I really had to take care of myself and had to take care of my sister ... my mom worked long hours and I was a latchkey kid, and I was the kid who had to put the dinner in the oven. And we lived in a duplex so we could (eventually) afford to have a house. It shaped who I am and certainly in a good way.”

Difficult criminal cases

In Milwaukee County, Dallet has spent most of her time prosecuting and deciding thousands of cases involving child molesters, killers and pimps in divisions devoted to homicides, sexual assaults and other sensitive crimes.

She said the toughest task during that time was putting convicted killers in prison.

“Homicide sentencings are actually, I would say, one of the toughest things I’ve done as a judge because everyone loses. There’s no chance of redemption, there’s no chance of treatment, there’s no chance of reconciliation or understanding ... because the person is gone,” she said. “And so it’s the pain that the victim’s family feels and it’s the pain that the defendant’s family feels because they’re about to lose their loved one to being in prison, and just listening to those — those were tough.”

There was also the teenage girl who got physically ill testifying against her pimp. The defendant who apologized to the mother of a man he shot and killed. And the boy recounting his memory of watching his father rape his mother.

Though the Supreme Court takes up criminal cases only on appeal, Dallet said those experiences prepared her for a job that requires a measured demeanor, a thick skin and empathy.

“There are things I’ve heard and seen that no one should have to hear and see (and) you do have to be able to put it somewhere,” she said, recalling Friday nights feeling disconnected from her family under the weight of the cases each week. “I such saw terrible things people did to each other, but I still think it’s the exception.”

Criminal law background

Dallet was criticized during the primary by Madison attorney Tim Burns for handing down too harsh criminal sentences. Meanwhile, Screnock has criticized Dallet for handing down too lenient sentences for people who have committed serious crimes.

Milwaukee County Deputy District Attorney Lovell Johnson, who worked with Dallet in the district attorney’s office between 1996 and 2007, said Dallet was known as a careful prosecutor and is known now for focusing on victims when deciding cases.

“She always seemed really conscientious about her cases,” Johnson said. “I think all her decisions have been really well-thought out, and she has always taken care to protect the innocent and take care of victims.”

Milwaukee County Judge Richard Sankowitz, who has contributed to Dallet’s campaign and endorsed her, said when Dallet first appeared before him as a prosecutor nearly 20 years ago, he remembers her being enthusiastic, well-prepared and able to navigate complicated civil cases involving committing sexual predators.

Sankowitz said her background in criminal law prepares her for the court because such cases tackle constitutional questions and provide her with a range of perspectives to draw from to provide a “very, very balanced judgment.”

Judicial recusal an issue

Dallet also is campaigning on fixing what she describes as a “broken” court. She says the court’s justices have been “bought” by outside groups who spend heavily to elect their preferred candidate during Supreme Court elections, and has called for stricter rules to dictate when justices should recuse themselves from cases.

Dallet said the point at which she began seriously considering running for the Supreme Court was in early 2017 when the court rejected a petition without a hearing from retired judges that would set rules to require justices to recuse from a case if a party involved had contributed $10,000 to them and $1,000 for circuit court judges like Dallet.

“That was really the point I said, ‘I think I’m going to do this, I think I’m going to take on (Justice Michael) Gableman,’” Dallet said.

Gableman decided not to run for another term.

This campaign message has drawn scrutiny from her opponent, who has said that while Dallet is selling herself as a force to cure the court of conflicts of interest, she has accepted campaign donations of $1,000 or more from attorneys involved in cases before her and a donation from a defendant in one case, according to records compiled by the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

“It is true that attorneys donate all the time ... but the thing that makes this unique is she’s been so adamant about the recusal rules,” UW-Madison Law School professor Ryan Owens, who is a member of the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies and heads the UW-Madison Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership. “If you’re going to elevate this to basically your primary issue in this race, your record needs to be squeaky clean on it.”

Moreover, he said, receiving donations from a defendant in a case over which the judge currently presides is “quite unlike getting something from an attorney.”

Dallet said this amounts to public participation and that she doesn’t decide cases based on donations.

“This election should be about people and their participation in the process,” she said. “I need to get my message across the state ... that includes the campaign raising money to do that. I’m proud to have support from attorneys who know I’m going to be fair and may not win their cases.”

Editor's note: This story has been changed to clarify that Rebecca Dallet was the first female to preside as Milwaukee County court commissioner. That means she supervised other court commissioners.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.