Connect with Isthmus:         Newsletters 

Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Overcast
The Paper
Share on Google+
A contrarian at the gates
Local lawyer makes quixotic bid for state Supreme Court
Sommers: 'The one thing I've got is notoriety.'
Sommers: 'The one thing I've got is notoriety.'

Joe Sommers is delusional. The Madison attorney thinks he may survive next Tuesday's primary for Wisconsin Supreme Court and go on to win the April 3 general election. That's not going to happen.

For one thing, Sommers has raised only about $40,000 (and stands to get about $60,000 in public financing if he wins the primary). His rivals for the nonpartisan post ' Washington County Judge Annette Ziegler and Madison lawyer Linda Clifford ' have already raised more than $400,000 each (about half from personal loans and family members) and will likely both top the $1 million mark. Sommers shrugs it off. 'Money is overrated,' he says. Madness.

And while other candidates are snaring endorsements from titanic special-interest groups, which will likely pump millions more into the race, Sommers' supporter list consists of folks he's helped and impressed. He sees this as a hopeful sign: 'When people hear what I've got to say, they resonate with it in a big way.' Madness.

Sommers, noting that the last Supreme Court primary was decided by 9% of the electorate, identifies an area where he clearly outshines his rivals. 'The one thing I've got is notoriety,' he says. 'People come up and ask me, 'Aren't you the attorney that told off the judge?''

Actually, here Sommers is being too modest. It's true he's notorious ' he faces a possible 60-day suspension for conduct during his zealous and ultimately successful defense of Adam Raisbeck, a young man charged with vehicular homicide ' but his candidacy has other strengths.

Sommers, 45, is by far the most interesting candidate. The Detroit native and longtime town of Oregon resident comes from a family of 13 and has 11 children himself. He's worked as the night manager for a homeless shelter and as a social worker for the chronically mentally ill.

And Sommers has easily the best Web site (, with lively diatribes and detailed positions. His rivals seem to assume, perhaps correctly, that voters aren't all that interested in substance.

Finally, Sommers stands alone among the contenders in prominently raising questions about the justice system's capacity for injustice. He laments that innocent people are being convicted, some forced to plead guilty to avoid the awesome power of the state.

'I've had innocent clients plead out,' he attests. 'The system is just out of control.'

Many defense attorneys ' and even some former state lawmakers ' would agree with this assessment. Why, then, is Sommers something of a pariah, even among his peers?

It's because he's quick to accuse others of acting in bad faith, against which his own passionate commitment to justice appears all the more virtuous.

He talks about 'people being prosecuted as favors,' to strengthen other attorneys' civil lawsuits. He claims this happened in Raisbeck's case and in the recent prosecution of Julie Thao, the former nurse at St. Mary's whose errors caused a young woman's death.

Sommers rips the practice of judges assigning defense counsel, suggesting favored lawyers are 'trial avoidant' and eager to close cases, even against their clients' best interests. He accuses the Office of Lawyer Regulation, which has recommended his suspension, of knowingly pressing false charges against him. Why? 'They want to say to everybody: 'There ain't nothing we can't get away with.''

Topping it off, Sommers sees dereliction in the media's failure to trumpet allegations like these. For him, the evidence in support, though circumstantial, is clear and overwhelming: 'In criminal cases, people are convicted on less evidence all the time.'

It is here that Sommers' disconnect with reality is most apparent, especially if his critique is at all valid. A justice system as corrupt as the one he perceives would never let someone like him on its highest court.

'Under no circumstances'

Do undercover drug cops in Madison, like those in movies, sometimes use illegal drugs to win the trust of drug dealers?

This claim has been offered in defense of former Madison police officer Ben Vanden Belt, convicted in 2001 of a sex-and-cocaine relationship with a teenage boy. Last week, Vanden Belt drew a year in jail, most already served, for violating the conditions of his probation from that offense.

Vanden Belt's attorney, Marcus Berghahn, said his problems began when he used cocaine, with the MPD's approval, while working undercover. Berghahn declines to elaborate. Lt. Brian Ackeret, one of Vanden Belt's supervisors at the time, is unequivocal in his denial.

'That's absolutely untrue,' says Ackeret. 'Under no circumstances would the MPD or any other law enforcement agency I'm aware of allow officers to use drugs. There is no gray line here. It's forbidden.'

David Mandell, a local lawyer, has had clients allege drug use by undercover cops. But aside from one case about 15 years ago involving a federal drug agent, he's not seen it confirmed. 'As a general rule, they're not supposed to be doing it.'

Charles Giesen, another local lawyer, notes that drug cops 'are allowed to lie and engage in all sorts of nefarious activities.' But the rules, as he understands it, preclude actual drug use. 'They always claim to pretend to inhale.'

You can't do that here

The Madison area's low unemployment rate not only helps boost local wages, it minimizes exploitative practices.

One disturbing trend being tried or eyed by major employers, including Wal-Mart, RadioShack and Payless shoes, is the use of computerized systems to schedule workers when the need is greatest, as opposed to set shifts. This may mean being 'on call' for customer surges and getting sent home when business is slack. This cuts costs for employers, but adds strain on workers, for obvious reasons.

Jim Cavanaugh of the South Central Federation of Labor has heard of this practice, but says it's not happening here. That's because of the tight labor market: 'People are going to say ' 'Pffft! For $8 an hour, I'll work somewhere where I don't have to give them my life.''

Sykes plagiarized!

The e-mail writer was indignant. In reading Charles Sykes' latest opinion offering in these pages ('Idol Minds, True Facts,' 2/2/07), he 'noticed some familiarity between [Sykes'] lecture and some other tripe I once received in an e-mail.' Sure enough, a Web search turned up a list of advice attributed to Microsoft founder Bill Gates that contained phrasings ('Life is not fair, get used to it') nearly identical to those in Sykes' column.

'So not only is Charlie full of crap,' wrote the correspondent, offering what appears to be a medical opinion, 'he has to PLAGIARIZE.'

Sykes, for his part, readily admits that plagiarism has occurred. He points to an earlier published version of his advice list and to a 2002 posting on the rumor-busting site, noting that these nuggets of wisdom, first minted by Sykes, were later falsely attributed to others, including Bill Gates.

Fair warning

Mayoral candidate Will Sandstrom, during a recent debate: 'You may not like me but you better vote for me, because our country's dying if you don't get me into office.'

Share on Google+

Log in or register to comment

Select a Movie
Select a Theater

Promotions Contact us Privacy Policy Jobs Newsletters RSS
Collapse Photo Bar