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Circuit court judge candidates Allen, Berz spar at peer forum

Berz (left) and Allen
Berz (left) and Allen
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Dane County Circuit Court Judge Roger Allen has criticized his opponent, Ellen Berz, for referring to him as "Walker's appointee." But only Allen himself used the label during a debate Tuesday organized by the Dane County Bar Association.

"Ms. Berz has consistently referred to me as the Walker appointee," Allen said. "That label is more than mere reference to who appointed me to office... It's a value-loaded statement, a statement loaded with partisan values that have no place in a judicial election."

Berz did not respond to Allen's accusation. She did note, later in the debate, that none of the candidates discussed politics during the primary campaign.

More than 100 legal professionals attended the noontime debate at the Madison Club between Allen, an assistant city attorney who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Scott Walker in December, and Berz, an assistant state public defender.

The two prevailed in the Feb. 21 primary over a third candidate, Francis Sullivan. Berz won with 44% of the vote; Allen, 31%.

The forum is part of a larger effort by the Dane County Bar to give members a chance to meet with candidates in advance of judicial elections.

"It's really to allow them to ask questions to determine who would be a better judge," says Elisabeth Shea, chair of the Bar's program committee.

During the debate, Berz stressed her legal experience as a prosecutor, defense attorney and adjunct faculty member at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She also touted her "balanced perspective" and "commitment to justice," as well as the number of trials under her belt.

"I handle approximately 400 new cases a year," she said. "Most hours of most days are spent in circuit court, and I continue to do jury trials."

Allen emphasized his experience in and outside the courtroom, including his time as an assistant city attorney, police officer, Drug Enforcement Agency agent and officer in the United States Army.

"My areas of practice within the city attorney's office were broad and diverse," said Allen, ticking off more than a dozen areas of law including legislative redistricting, affirmative action, open records and fire and building code compliance.

The candidates were asked questions about statements they made during their campaigns. Berz was asked about her assertion that she has won over 90 percent of her cases, and how she defines "winning."

"In a criminal case, losing is guilty - that's how I define losing," Berz said. "Anything else is winning. So winning would be not guilty. Winning would be, before or after closing argument, having the case dismissed. Winning would be a mistrial without another trial following it."

Allen was asked to clarify the role he played in drafting the complaints filed in response to Act 10, the controversial law championed and signed by Gov. Walker that curtails collective bargaining rights for public workers. Verified complaints were filed by Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha); former Dane county Executive Kathleen Falk; AFSCME's Marty Biel; and former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.

"I drafted the verified complaint that was signed by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz," Allen said. "Additionally, I shared that document with Kathleen Falk's attorney... there was some back and forth. Did I prosecute the case? No. I drafted the verified complaint that resulted in the complaint filed by the District Attorney."

The candidates did agree on several points: the importance of judicial impartiality, the need for higher wages for state prosecutors and defense attorneys, and the social responsibility judges have to engage with the community at large.

"The role of the judge goes beyond just the circuit court," Berz said. "They have a responsibility to the community and citizens as a whole. I spent a good deal of my time well before this campaign, going out and talking to groups, to citizens, to law students, to lawyers, and I did that because I feel an ethical obligation, an ethical role to represent the legal field as best as I can."

Allen noted his experience working with middle school students, young attorneys, Boy and Girl Scouts and foreign exchange students.

The candidates will face off in a general election on April 3.

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