Meet the candidates for Kewaunee County Circuit Court Judge before the Feb. 15 primary election
KEWAUNEE COUNTY – Voters in the county have one local race in the Feb. 15 primary, and it's one that potentially affects everyone in the county.
Three candidates are running for circuit court judge to replace Keith Mehn, who decided to not seek reelection after serving one six-year term before he died Dec. 25. The top two vote-getters in the primary will face off again in the April 5 general election, with the winner serving a six-year term as county judge.
The candidates in the primary are Jeffrey Wisnicky, who was a candidate in the 2016 election won by Mehn and currently is Kewaunee County Corporation Counsel and its human resources director; Kim Hardtke, a Brown County assistant district attorney; and John Peterson, a private practice attorney who owns his own firm.
The Star-News asked the candidates to reply to a short questionnaire on their qualifications and views on relevant issues. Below are their answers, along with brief profiles on each; some answers are edited for length.
Place of residence: Luxemburg (Town of Montpelier)
Current occupation: Assistant District Attorney in Brown County.
Education: Juris Doctor, University of Wisconsin Law School, 2014
Family: Husband, Shaun; daughter, Adrienne (age 5); son, Jack (2)
How long have you lived in your community? I am a lifelong resident of Kewaunee County, except for the years obtaining my degrees.
Legal experience: Prosecutor in the Brown County District Attorney’s office for last five years, handling a wide variety of criminal cases including homicides, sexual assaults, domestic violence incidents, OWIs and property crimes. Also filled the role of Regional Violence Against Women Resource prosecutor since 2017, providing training and assistance to prosecutors throughout Northeast Wisconsin on issues related to those types of cases. Prior to joining the DA’s office, I clerked for the eight Circuit Court judges in Brown County for two years, researching complex legal issues in every area of the law and writing decisions. This experience provided a unique insight into how judges make decisions and how a good judge approaches a complex legal problem.
Relevant public service experience: My entire career so far has been in public service. From my time as an ADA to clerking, I have been committed to roles where I can put my legal skills to use while working to better the community. As the Regional Violence Against Women Resource prosecutor, I have provided many trainings in the community to raise awareness about domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault and help community members better understand those issues. I have spoken on numerous panels about these topics, as well as presented to professionals such as law enforcement and sexual assault nurse examiners. I am also a member of the Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Response Team.
Contact information: [email protected], kimhardtkeforjudge.com, "Kim Hardtke for Judge" on Facebook
John F. Peterson
Place of residence: Luxemburg (Town of Red River)
Current occupation: Self-employed private attorney
Education: Juris Doctorate, Marquette University Law School
Family: Wife, Kari Peterson; Daughters, Sylvia (15), Evelyn (12), Adeline (11)
How long have you lived in your community? 13 years
Legal experience: Independent practice attorney for 19 years, private practice owner for 12 years
Relevant public service experience: As an independent private attorney, I help families and individuals navigate complex laws. I also take on cases of those who are less fortunate and lack resources to defend themselves, which is the cornerstone of our legal system. Serving within the community is the true meaning of public service and is not simply a job or title. Neighbors helping neighbors is what it takes to make our community stronger and a better place to live and helps to reduce the number of those who come through the court system.
Contact information: 920-676-8751, [email protected]
Jeffrey R. Wisnicky
Place of residence: Kewaunee
Current occupation: Corporation Counsel and Human Services Director for Kewaunee County
Education: Juris Doctor Cum Laude, Northern Illinois University College of Law, 2003
Family: Wife, Blair; children, Grace, Jackson, Scarlett and Harper
How long have you lived in your community? Blair and I are lifelong residents of Kewaunee County.
Legal experience: 18 years of broad professional legal experience including as a prosecutor, in private practice, and as a government lawyer. From 2007 to April 2021, I served as Assistant District Attorney/Corporation Counsel for the county. From 2005-07 I served as Assistant Corporation Counsel for Door County. From 2003-05 I started my legal career in the Algoma general practice law firm of Blazkovec and Blazkovec, where I primarily worked in criminal defense, family law and civil litigation.
Relevant public service experience: As Corporation Counsel I have been intimately involved in every significant public project in Kewaunee County since 2007, including the courthouse remodel and addition, Human Services Building, Public Safety Radio Project, Fairgrounds Expo Center project and Broadband Expansion Grant project. I also briefly served as interim County Administrator when Ed Dorner retired.
Contact information: [email protected], "Wisnicky for Judge" Facebook page
Why are you running for office?
Hardtke: Quite simply, I love my home county and its people. I understand the impact that the legal system has on the lives of individuals and strive to make fair and just decisions in all aspects of my life. I care deeply about the law and making sure that it is applied equally and correctly in any given situation. I am running because I am qualified, and also to bring a new perspective to the bench in Kewaunee County. I believe strongly in maintaining Kewaunee County values while also looking forward to the future. In short, I am running for judge because I want to serve my community the best way I know how.
Peterson: I’m running for Kewaunee County Circuit Court Judge because it would be an honor to serve the community that has provided my family and me with so many opportunities. While practicing law in many counties throughout Northeast Wisconsin, I have seen some great judges. I want to make sure that the folks of Kewaunee County have an impartial judge that will treat all parties with respect, apply common sense in the courtroom and interpret and apply the law rather than using the power of a judge to create law.
Wisnicky: I want to be your next judge to continue in the strong traditions of Judge Mehn and Judge Mleziva by administering justice thoughtfully and impartially to reach a fair and just result in every case. I will serve with great enthusiasm, diligence and, above all, with the highest ethical standards. I am committed to the rule of law and will not legislate from the bench. I will apply the law as written equally to all parties in every case. I pledge to listen to you, be responsive and be accountable. I will work hard to bring your cases to finality in a timely manner. I will maintain decorum yet treat every party with dignity and respect.
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What makes you the better candidate for this office?
Hardtke: I have a unique set of experiences and perspectives that make me an excellent choice. In addition to my legal experience, I am committed to doing the hard work that it takes to make important decisions. I believe that all judges should be lifelong learners, because no judge can ever be familiar with every single facet of the law. I am committed to listening to the litigants that appear before me, applying the law as written, and doing diligent research to make sure my decisions are sound. I am committed to treating everyone who enters my courtroom with dignity and respect.
Peterson: I have represented people in Northeast Wisconsin as an independent private attorney for 19 years and started my own firm 12 years ago. I understand firsthand the issues we face as families, individuals and as a community, and how law intertwines with our everyday lives. I believe that’s what sets us apart. I’m the only candidate who has not been a government employee for the majority of their career and who has extensive independent experience in the areas where judges are required to preside. Having a diversified legal practice in multiple areas of law throughout many circuit courts across Wisconsin has prepared me for the complex and varied legal cases facing Kewaunee County.
Wisnicky: I am the most experienced candidate across all the areas of law that are routinely decided in Kewaunee County. I have prosecuted and defended all manner of criminal cases including sexual assault, drug offenses and child abuse. I won a conviction in a four-day reckless homicide jury trial, successfully argued an appeal to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, and I know and understand all the substantive law and procedures required to serve as your next judge. My extensive and broad-based experience uniquely qualifies me to hit the ground running on Day One. Finally, my deep local family roots will allow me to administer justice with a full understanding and appreciation of the sensibilities, character and rich traditions of our community.
What are your thoughts on criminal justice reforms, such as alternatives to incarceration, that have been brought forward in recent years?
Hardtke: During my tenure as a prosecutor, I have seen programs such as pre-trial diversion, treatment courts and electronic monitoring in action. I have seen how intensive programs like treatment courts have helped individuals separate themselves from the criminal mindset and behaviors that brought them before the court and work toward becoming productive members of the community. For those who take advantage of these opportunities, they can be truly life-changing.
My philosophy has focused on the knowledge that the vast majority of individuals who find themselves convicted of a crime do, and should, return to the community. In my view, the job of the criminal justice system is to do everything possible to rehabilitate the offender by addressing underlying needs, and in doing so prevent future criminal behavior and protect the public. While there are certainly crimes for which punishment (and incarceration) are an important part of the sentence, I believe that the public is best protected when we can break the cycle of criminality and address the underlying needs.
Peterson: We need to ensure “justice reforms” are truly reforms and not “get out of jail free" cards. Turning people loose with low bail, as we’ve seen from the recent tragedy in Waukesha (where the loss of innocent lives could have been prevented) is not helping our communities.
Specialized treatment courts, on the other hand, have demonstrated the ability to cut out the root cause of alcohol- and drug-fueled crimes such as OWIs, property crimes such as theft, and even violent crimes. Increased jail time, fines and revoking licenses have not stopped many from continuing to drive drunk. Treatment courts can break the cycle by dealing with the underlying issues like alcoholism and drug addiction. Breaking the cycle makes sense — reducing the demand on our law enforcement, lowering taxes, and rehabilitating a resident who can return to, and contribute to, our community. That’s what makes us Kewaunee County.
Wisnicky: I am committed to keeping the citizens of Kewaunee County safe by holding criminal offenders accountable. I will carefully consider crime victims throughout the legal process and especially at the time of sentencing. I will fairly and consistently apply the sentencing factors to each defendant appearing before me and will selectively use alternatives to incarceration when appropriate.
Public safety will be a paramount consideration in my courtroom. I will resist the use of alternatives until the alternative demonstrates a track record of success in improving outcomes in the criminal justice system. I firmly believe in employing common-sense and carefully tailored sentences that hold criminal offenders accountable while addressing the underlying factors contributing to the criminal behavior is the best approach when sentencing criminal defendants.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Meet the candidates for Kewaunee County Circuit Court Judge before the Feb. 15 primary election