June 19, 2019 – Once called an “advocate judge,” Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell is known for his leadership on issues of disparate incarceration, juvenile justice, and racism reform. Elected to the Dane County bench in 2016, he believes judges and lawyers should be active leaders in their local communities.
Judge Mitchell spoke during the final session of the State Bar of Wisconsin G. Lane Ware Leadership Academy on April 6 – a multisession program that teaches lawyers practical skills and techniques to boost their leadership skills.
Mitchell outlined three central principles of leadership that he uses to effect change in his community and in Wisconsin.
Leadership Principle #1: Have the Courage to Redefine What is Known
This principle, he says, derives from the idea of leading from within, and an example comes from his own experience.
In March 2015, before he became a judge, Judge Mitchell joined the Black Lives Matters group following the death of Tony Robinson in Madison. That experience, he said, was eye-opening. “I saw how the imbalance of power left certain people out of the possibility of justice,” he said.
When he was elected to the bench, he realized a challenge.
“I asked myself, how can I lead from within a system that I criticized as being responsible for racial disparities in incarceration and furthering the demise of the black community? How can I lead from within this system?” he asked.
“I realized I can choose to lead, and follow my passion for justice from the bench,” he said.
Examples of leading from within include his efforts to work with school districts to assist children involved with the juvenile justice system who were scheduled by school administrators for fewer hours at school than other students, due to behavioral or other issues.
In his view, the children who need education the most weren’t getting it. In discussion with school officials, he worked with them to come up with a new plan that he believes more closely considered the needs of these children. The result was that those students were in school for longer periods of time. “If I hadn’t had the courage to see that these children deserve an education, the system would have stayed the same,” Judge Mitchell said.
Leadership Principle #2: Bring People with You
“Sometimes leaders are so far out front that no one is behind them,” Judge Mitchell said.
The key of this leadership principle is to work with those near you. Sometimes you bring them along one at a time, he said.
Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.
He was able, by this principle, to gather support for the deletion of certain online criminal court records – where the case was dismissed or had a not-guilty outcome – that could potentially interfere with an individual’s ability to establish a home and a career.
While serving on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program Oversight Committee, he brought attention to these types of cases. Defendants, he said, had their ability to get a job or housing hampered when dismissed cases which were still on the record. The public, he said, could easily misunderstand the ultimate outcome of the case.
“As a prosecutor in Dane County, I would charge cases that, later after I got more information, I realized should never have been charged,” Judge Mitchell said. “It’s unfair for them to remain on the record.”
To effect change, he worked with individuals one-by-one, bringing them around to his point of view. But this principle takes patience as well as courage. “Eventually, you can feel the momentum change,” he said.
As a result, those types of records are now deleted from the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) two years after dismissal or acquittal as opposed to 50 years, which was the previous policy.1
Leadership Principle #3: Remain Flexible, Embrace Your Options
In his courtroom, Judge Mitchell handles juvenile justice cases, seeing children who are struggling, who have been traumatized. Although he now holds two undergraduate and three advanced degrees and is a circuit court judge in Dane County, he was functionally illiterate when he graduated from high school in Texas.2
He understands their struggle and trauma, giving him understanding and empathy for the children who appear before him.
An issue he witnessed as Dane County judge is what he calls the child welfare to juvenile delinquency to adult-prison pipeline. That pipeline takes traumatized, abused, neglected children, he said, and does little to help them.
“Everyone knows about the school to prison pipeline. But I see many kids who are not in school, yet are traumatized children going into CHIPS, then passed on to the juvenile justice system, who ultimately end up in the adult system,” Judge Mitchell said. “Rather than sending children to prison, I believe we should learn how to deal with the trauma that they are undergoing.”
“I realized I can choose to lead, and follow my passion for justice from the bench.”
The way to break up the pipeline is to address trauma when children are young – at about eight years old. Yet, he realized “I’m young, I’m a new judge, and many people don’t believe in or understand the idea of the traumatized child,” he said.
He told himself that he would remain flexible and explore different options to address the issue. “This idea has radically changed my options and how I conduct court,” he said.
In court, he makes an effort to show the children that he cares about them. “I give them high-fives. I try to show them my personality, so they know I’m concerned,” he said.
He regularly speaks at area schools, encouraging students to think about their future profession – including the possibility of becoming a judge. If that’s their choice, he tells them that he will be there to support them. “Those opportunities cement something in their minds, and they remember you,” Judge Mitchell said.
This is the leadership principle of using his position to transform what it means not only to be a judge, but to be a human being. “We have many opportunities to lead. You have to maximize every space that you are in, to make sure you are maximizing your leadership potential,” he said.
‘It Makes Us Whole’
The three leadership principles inform his actions, and in his actions, he said, he represents those “nobody wants to hear from.”
He leads his efforts with all the passion he is able to give. “Why?” he asks. “Because they deserve it.”
“That’s what makes us different” as leaders, he said. “And that’s what makes us whole.”
1 See “Dismissed Criminal, Eviction, Other Cases No Longer Displayed On Court Website After Two Years,” in the Feb. 21, 2018, issue of InsideTrack. See the Feb. 21, 2018, issue of InsideTrack.
2 Find out more about his background in “‘We Can Do Better Than This': Judge Everett Mitchell on Being Visible in Your Community,” in the April 5, 2017, issue of InsideTrack.