On April 7, Dane County voters will have a rare chance to pick between two non-incumbent candidates for the important job of circuit court judge. Most judges are initially appointed to fill midterm vacancies; they serve six-year terms and are seldom challenged once in office.
Ehlke, 46, a former assistant Dane County district attorney who now works for the U.S. Attorney's Office, has prosecuted and defended criminal cases as well as civil ones.
Genovese, 47, a former trial attorney at Foley & Lardner who's now in private practice, has never handled a criminal case, on either side. But she's done a wide range of civil litigation, including environmental law, labor law and contract disputes. She's also served as a special investigator with the Office of Lawyer Regulation - as she puts it, "a neutral."
Both were mentored by outstanding jurists. Ehlke, a Dane County native and son of local lawyer Bruce Ehlke, clerked for former county judge Susan Steingass. Genovese, originally from Boston, clerked for state Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. And both have armies of prominent local endorsers. His list includes D.A. Brian Blanchard, hers Sen. Russ Feingold.
Genovese is the more polished candidate and the clear frontrunner. In the Feb. 17 primary, she garnered 63% of the vote against two contenders.
Ehlke says this is because she spent more money. Genovese demurs: "I also worked a lot harder than he did." But she did spend more money, by her account about $40,000 through the primary, about half of it her own money. Here's how she describes it:
"We were going to remodel our kitchen. My thought was, rather than [do that], I was going to put some resources into this." She lives in a $450,000 house with her husband, attorney David Harth, and four kids. Overall, she expects to spend about $100,000.
Ehlke, who lives in a $343,000 house in Maple Bluff with his wife, Rachelle Weber, says he spent between $6,000 and $7,000 before the primary, where he got 21% of the vote. He expects to spend $20,000 overall.
Both lawyers stress their commitment to treating people fairly. Says Ehlke, "I will try to live up to the standards Judge Steingass set for me - to respect the litigants, the attorneys and the process." Says Genovese, "I want to be the kind of judge where [the parties] say, 'All right, we got her!'"
But what kind of judges would they be? Consider the stories they tell about prominent cases they've handled.
Genovese talks proudly about two cases. One was a civil rights lawsuit she brought on behalf of a prison inmate who was sprayed with mace. She won at the federal court level, and though the suit was later overturned on appeal, the case brought home for her that "everybody's entitled to protection" under the law.
The second case involved a farmer, a Vietnam vet, who lost his farm. She represented him in his successful bid to enforce an oral agreement to buy back his land.
Both cases speak of a basic commitment to fairness, to due process, to the integrity of the system as a protector of rights. Good qualities in a judge.
Ehlke, meanwhile, tells of a murder case he assisted in prosecuting in Dane County in 1989. One man had stabbed another to death, possibly after being propositioned.
"When that verdict came back, I felt I was going to throw up," Ehlke relates. "I had a terrible empty feeling." The victim was savagely murdered, and his killer got what he deserved. Both results saddened Ehlke, who felt "the futility of it all."
That speaks of his capacity to see a complex situation complexly, with empathy for all. Not a bad quality for a judge. Or for a human being.