I had the privilege to serve Rock County for 14 years as a Circuit Court Judge. All judges in Wisconsin are nonpartisan, despite the impression you might get from campaign ads.
Nonpartisan means that we do not belong to political parties and we do not endorse Democratic or Republican candidates. But judges in Wisconsin are elected. I ran for judge in Rock County three times and served the people first as a criminal court judge, then as a juvenile court judge.
I began my judicial career with faith in elections, our judicial system and the belief that all lives matter.
It was in the juvenile court and in the OWI (drunk driving) Treatment Court that I found my true calling as a judge. I learned that all lives did not matter until everybody, and in particular, Black lives mattered. African-American children were wildly overrepresented in our juvenile court. Our team, including the District Attorney, the Public Defender, law enforcement, Juvenile Justice, community members, educators, counselors and others who worked tirelessly to look not just at the offenders, but at the underlying lives of the children and families who came to our court. Then we had to look at what we were doing and what we, the court, could do to change their lives.
Sometimes punishment was necessary, sometimes it was irrelevant. Our goals were to make strong families and to make sure Black lives mattered so that all lives in our community did matter.
There are a lot of yard signs in our community that say “We Back the Badge” and others that say “Black Lives Matter.” They are not mutually exclusive.
I do support the dedicated women and men of law enforcement. I have served as a judge on committees and task forces with the Rock County Sheriff, the Chief of Police of Janesville and Beloit and I am amazed at the efforts and flexibility of these agencies to change practices and better serve all members of the community. Law enforcement will always have a confrontational aspect, but these agencies have made a huge effort to analyze their practices, examine the communities they serve and make changes. I applaud, support and “back” their efforts.
Protests around Wisconsin and our country currently dominate the news. Protest, the rights of free speech and assembly, are basic constitutional rights of all Americans. Civil disobedience is a tactic, a choice that a protester can make. If we choose to be disobedient to the law because of a higher calling, like protesting injustice, that is fine, but be aware that disobedience may have consequences.
A choice to protest an injustice by breaking the law is not a shield from arrest and prosecution. When the late Congressman John Lewis talked about getting into “good trouble,” he did not mean that he could break the law for a good purpose and not suffer the consequences. He was willing to go to jail for a good purpose, for example, the right to vote.
Finally, looting and violence are not protesting or civil disobedience; they are just crimes.
I am writing to encourage all of you to vote. I do not urge a vote one way or the other, politically. But I do urge you to vote critically and with love, hope and respect. It is acknowledged in political campaigns that negative ads that knock down the opponent or try to scare us are the most persuasive ads. That is a shame. Our political conversations should be about what we can do for our fellow human beings and our country through good government, administered by good, competent and loving people.
I believe in America and I believe in our people, all of our people. I believe that if we look at the candidates, the issues and consult our intellect and our souls we will know what to do. We will each adopt our state motto and move “Forward.”
Do not take our democracy for granted this election. Be sure you are registered to vote. Double check where you vote, or how to receive an absentee ballot. Check the deadlines to submit your absentee ballot.
Consider volunteering with a nonpartisan group like the League of Women Voters to educate voters, if you are able, volunteer to be a poll worker.
The right to vote had to be earned with blood, sweat and tears, and 2020 happens to be the 100th anniversary of women achieving the right to vote. Honor that hard won right. Do not be distracted by manipulation, fear and hate. Add your voice to the national chorus of people who care about each other and about our country. Vote like your life depends on it, because it does.
Alan Bates, of Janesville, is a Reserve Judge for the Rock County Circuit Court.