Our Views: Experience makes Michael Haakenson best bet for Rock County judge

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April 2, 2015

The race for Rock County Branch 5 judge offers voters two reasonable candidates in Court Commissioner Mike Haakenson and District Attorney David O'Leary.

Breadth of experience makes Haakenson the best choice Tuesday to replace Judge Kenneth Forbeck, who's stepping down.

It's not that O'Leary lacks experience. He has been district attorney since 1997 and previously handled divorce and family cases in his family's legal firm. Like Haakenson, he has represented interests of children as a guardian ad litem. O'Leary argues his experiences are as broad as Haakenson's.

As district attorney, however, O'Leary is more of a manager. He appears in court for high-profile cases such as homicides. Haakenson was in court routinely during more than 20 years as a private attorney. He handled mostly criminal but also family cases. Rock County's judges appointed him as a court commissioner in 2012, and he went full time in 2013. That, Haakenson rightly notes, gives him judicial experience O'Leary lacks.

Haakenson likens his “junior judge” role to being in the judicial minor leagues. As court commissioner, he presides over hearings with a clerk and court reporter. He considers evidence, rules on objections and applies the law to make decisions and orders. He handles criminal, family, personal injury, juvenile delinquency, guardianship and probate cases. He also hears cases when children need protection and parents might lose their rights.

How does his role differ from a judge's? As Haakenson explains, he gives temporary orders in a divorce case, but a judge makes the split final. He can limit contact between parties but can't sentence someone to jail.

Haakenson shows even temperament while treating people with respect. He lets all be heard, knows the law, is consistent and explains his decisions.

Those qualities and his experience might be why a recent Rock County Bar Association poll favored Haakenson. About half the members responded. Of those, 91 percent found Haakenson “qualified” compared to 75 percent for O'Leary.

Haakenson knows he must overcome O'Leary's name. O'Leary has engaged in more community and professional service. The O'Leary name is well recognized, not just in law but in politics and even sports and farming. Haakenson's mother, Janet, served as a Janesville attorney, and some might recall that his first stab at politics came in 2012. He didn't make it out of a crowded primary when Barbara McCrory was elected judge.

Critics including now-retired Judge James Welker, however, think O'Leary too often skirts trials in favor of plea bargains. We've sense that, too, and state data support that notion. Between 2009 and 2013, only three counties—all rural—had lower percentages of criminal cases go to jury trials.

Forbeck, by the way, also supports Haakenson, saying in a Wednesday letter to the editor that O'Leary lacks the right experience.

Some voters, particularly Democrats, might wonder why they elected O'Leary to a new four-year term in 2012 and should elect him judge before his DA term expires. If O'Leary wins, Republican Gov. Scott Walker would appoint a replacement prosecutor.

Branch 5 deals mainly with criminal cases. If elected, O'Leary might spend months recusing himself until cases his office handled work their way through the system. If Branch 5 is changed to a civil or family court, that would expose O'Leary's lack of experience outside of criminal law and better fit Haakenson's broader experience.

O'Leary is right: Being a judge isn't a retirement gig, and residents expect judges to show up on time and do the work. Haakenson has been doing similar work, filling a busy calendar, as court commissioner.

On Tuesday, voters should move him up to the judicial big leagues.


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