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Blanchard or Leineweber? You be the judge
Important race has two qualified contenders
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Blanchard and Leineweber.
Blanchard and Leineweber.

To illustrate a point he's making - that it doesn't bother him to be occasionally overturned on appeal - Edward Leineweber tells a joke.

"A Supreme Court justice, appellate court judge and circuit court judge are in a blind, duck hunting," begins Leineweber, a circuit court judge running for the state's 4th District Court of Appeals. A bird flies by. The justice rises, tracks the bird, but never shoots. His companions ask why.

The justice says, "I was wondering whether it met the definition of a duck in 1848, when the state Constitution was adopted." The bird was gone before he finished his analysis.

Soon another bird passes. The appellate court judge rises but never shoots. She explains that she was applying the five-pronged test for whether or not it was a duck, and missed her chance.

Then a third bird appears. The circuit court judge blasts it from the sky. He tells his companions, "I hope to heck that was a duck."

Leineweber, 61, Richland County's sole judge since 1997, is running for the appeals court against Brian Blanchard, the district attorney of Dane County, following a low-turnout primary last month. (Of the 24-county district's 984,077 registered voters, just 53,984 people turned out to vote, with Blanchard getting more than half the total.)

The April 6 election represents a rare chance for voters to pick an appellate judge (16 statewide, five in Dist. 4). Often the governor makes these picks to fill midterm vacancies, and incumbents are generally reelected without opposition.

As usual for judicial races, this one is short on issues, beyond the candidates' varying backgrounds.

Blanchard, 50, Dane County district attorney since 2001, says he has "the integrity, the independence and the knowledge of the law" to do well in a court charged with reviewing the rulings of lower courts - checking to see if that blown-away bird is really a duck.

Leineweber, meanwhile, presents himself as the "most experienced nonpartisan judge" - a possible comment on Blanchard's lack of judicial experience and the fact that he's been elected (five times in all) as a Democrat. Back when Leineweber held partisan office, as Richland County DA from 1987 to 1993, he ran as an independent.

Both candidates are well qualified for the job. Blanchard has worked as a civil litigator as well as a prosecutor, and has solid writing skills (he spent six years as a reporter for the Miami Herald). He has at various times in his career filed briefs with appeals courts, which he says gives him "more appellate experience" than his opponent.

Leineweber's résumé includes work as a defense attorney and Richland Center city attorney. He touts his rural roots ("I'm just a country judge") and outstate credentials, saying, "It's time for there to be a judge for Dist. 4 who is from one of the 23 counties outside of Dane County."

It's an argument that La Crosse County Judge Ramona Gonzalez, whom Leineweber barely edged out in the primary, finds persuasive. She says she ran for the court and is now backing Leineweber because she's "frustrated with the Court of Appeals not having circuit court experience and geographic diversity."

Blanchard rejects this, saying the law is the same in every county. He suggests Leineweber's references to the court needing a rural voice are a kind of "code," meant to give rural voters the idea that he'll favor them.

Neither candidate is overtly partisan, but Leineweber says he leans toward being a "strict constructionist" - a term often used interchangeably with "judicial conservative." His campaign is managed by former Republican state Rep. Sheryl Albers and backed by Pro-Life Wisconsin, an anti-abortion group so hardcore it opposes all forms of "artificial" contraception.

Leineweber claims to be unaware of the group's specific stances, but does say: "I am personally pro-life, I've stated that for years. I'm a Catholic."

Blanchard's campaign is run by Melissa Mulliken, a longtime consultant to Democratic candidates. But his endorsement list, like Leineweber's, includes members of both parties, and prosecutors as well as defense attorneys.

From last fall to the end of January, filings show, both candidates raised just over $20,000, roughly half from loans to themselves. Blanchard, who was able to move some money from his DA war chest, had $27,862 on hand at the end of this period, compared to $10,866 for Leineweber. Most of the cash is likely flowing in now, and won't be disclosed until the next filing, on March 29.

At a recent debate, Leineweber made a point he's made before: "The average citizen has no idea the Court of Appeals exists." And many voters will doubtless be motivated by vague familiarity with one or the other candidate. But for those looking to make an informed choice, here are some nuances to ponder.

Leineweber can't think of any state laws with which he has a fundamental disagreement: "I'm a pretty mainstream guy, and Wisconsin law is pretty mainstream law." Blanchard says he is personally opposed to the death penalty and might have trouble executing his duties if those duties included executions, which is not the case now.

Blanchard also questions the state law that automatically treats 17-year-old offenders as adults. But he vows to put aside his personal feelings and do what the law requires.

Asked if there are innocent people in Wisconsin prisons, Leineweber answers, "almost certainly, yes." As he puts it, "There is no reason to believe that the Innocence Project has managed to cleanse our prisons of every innocent person."

Blanchard, whose office has prosecuted some of those the Innocence Project has freed, is more circumspect: "I certainly fear there could be. I don't know. If I knew of one myself, it would be my obligation to work actively for their release."

Asked if he agrees with any instance in which a conviction obtained by his office was overturned, Blanchard says he regards the appellate court's decision to grant former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen a new trial and a judge's decision last year to overturn the conviction of Forest Shomberg as "reasonable." His office aggressively opposed both.

Leineweber has attacked Blanchard for "a longstanding pattern of ethical violations and abuse of power" by a prosecutor in his office. He says Blanchard has a history of "diminishing if not dismissing the seriousness of the problem and defending the person who caused the problem."

Blanchard blasts such attacks as undignified and false, saying Leineweber has not cited "a single objective credible authority" who has faulted Blanchard's handling of these matters.

A final point of distinction: Leineweber, in his spare time, flies airplanes. Blanchard plays pond hockey.

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