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April 23, 2024 National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

Coming To A Courthouse Near You?

Hon. Richard Ginkowski, Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin

For 18 years Frank Gagliardi practiced in his family’s law firm in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, a geographically small but populous suburban county sandwiched in between Chicago and Milwaukee. A hunter, gun-owner and family man with a wife and two daughters, Gagliardi’s spare time was most often spent coaching Little League baseball teams and college-bound softball athletes. His political philosophy was nondescript, somewhere in between his father, a donor to Democratic campaigns, and a conservative brother.

Late last year Gagliardi was appointed by Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Circuit Judge Bruce E. Schroeder, himself appointed to the bench in 1983 and elected several times thereafter. Because of the quirky timing, state law required Gagliardi to almost immediately declare his candidacy to retain his job. He came out on top of a three-way primary, challenged by two of the county’s three full-time court commissioners (magistrates) and was headed toward victory in the April 2 election. That was until a few days before the election when Kenosha County voters began receiving attack ads in the mail and on their cell phones, accusing Gagliardi, who was only on the bench for a few months hearing mostly family law cases, of being an “activist” judge and associating him with the violent riots that rocked the city of Kenosha in 2020.

Gagliardi’s opponent, Court Commissioner Heather Iverson, denied knowledge of the attack campaign sponsored by Fair Courts America (FCA), a “dark money” special interest political action committee linked to Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, which dropped nearly $51,000 to support Iverson’s successful campaign. Fair Courts America also sponsored similar 11th hour attack ads in four other local judicial contests in Wisconsin, prevailing in three of the four. In LaCrosse County, Evers appointee Mark Huesmann, a former municipal judge, survived despite attacks that linked him with “radical politicians” who were “soft” on violent crime.

Unlike the other counties, the outside “dark money” campaign was reported in the local news media and District Chief Judge Scott Horne issued a stern statement praising both Huesmann and his opponent, a former judge, but decrying the attack ads as exhibiting “little awareness or understanding of local issues or candidates in favor of generic, dramatic and largely untrue attacks.” “We have been accustomed to such [campaigns] being employed in national and state races,” Horne wrote. “We see now national entities using these same techniques to impact local judicial races and in the process distort the nonpartisan role of judges and mislead the public.”

Fair Courts America spent nearly $8 million in the recent election cycle, almost $2 million of which supporting conservative Dan Kelly’s unsuccessful attempt to regain his seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. As Judge Horne noted, it’s remarkable to see this effort and funding in supposedly nonpartisan and usually nondescript local judicial elections. This troubling trend may now to poised to repeat itself all across the U.S.

Hon. Richard Ginkowski

2023-2024 JD Record Editor, National Conference of Specialized Cout Judges

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