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  • InsideTrack
  • October 16, 2019

    Judge Carl Ashley: A 'Change-agent' for the Profession and the Community

    Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Carl Ashley is one of two recipients of the Wisconsin Law Foundation's 2019 Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award. His colleagues see him as a change-agent for reform.

    Shannon Green

    Judge Carl Ashley and family

    Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Carl Ashley is one of two recipients of the Wisconsin Law Foundation’s 2019 Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award. He is pictured here with his wife, Felita Daniels Ashley, right; daughter Zoe, second from right; and daughter Elise, left.

    Oct. 16, 2019 – Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Carl Ashley is a change-agent for reform on domestic violence and criminal justice issues, and for diversity and inclusion in the profession.

    He is considered a national leader and educator on domestic violence issues and a leader in evidence-based diversion programs in the justice system.

    He devotes time, effort, and understanding to advancing a diverse and inclusive legal profession that reflects the society it serves.

    Along with Madison attorney Earl Munson, Judge Ashley is one of two recipients of the Wisconsin Law Foundation’s 2019 Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award. The award recognizes a lifetime of service to the profession and the community, and both received the award at the Wisconsin Law Foundation Fellows Dinner on Oct. 10.

    “It’s humbling to receive this distinguished award,” he said, “because I am also a beneficiary of so many people who work hard to make a difference in this world.”

    Continuing the Steps Forward

    Success, he says, is accomplished from that of “those who have stepped in life before you. I am always very mindful of that. I’ve stood on the back, sides, and shoulders of others who fought for more diversity and inclusiveness on the bench.”

    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 has done all of this with humility, honesty, and humor,” said Kathryn Bullon, one of several nominating Judge Ashley for the award. “He helps us draft our own blueprint by which we can become the best person, the best lawyer and advocate possible.”

    “Not content to simply serve in an assigned role, he has consistently undertaken to improve himself and the systems within which he works,” Bullon said.

    Earning his J.D. at Marquette University Law School, Judge Ashley began his legal career in 1983 as a public defender, serving in that position until 1992, when he opened his own solo law firm. “I did a little bit of everything – criminal, civil, children’s law, and family law,” he said.

    He set his eyes on the Milwaukee County bench in 1997. “When Judge Larry Graham announced his retirement (that year), I made up buttons that said ‘Ashley for Judge 1999,’” he said. “I started campaigning two years before the election.”

    In the end, he ran unopposed. “That was very rare, particularly for an African-American,” he said. In 1999, he became a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge.

    The experience of campaigning taught him the importance of networking. “Networking is an opportunity to broaden your horizon and your ability to understand how things work,” Judge Ashley said. “You can work hard, but end up isolated.”

    During his years in private practice before taking the bench, he fought isolation of a solo attorney by becoming involved in organizations like the Milwaukee Bar Association. Serving on its board of directors, he met “people I never knew,” including big law-firm partners he never otherwise would have met.

    He started building relationships in the wider legal community, getting to know his colleagues – many of whom subsequently helped him with his judicial campaign.

    Judge Carl Ashley speaks

    Judge Carl Ashley speaks during the Fellows Dinner on Oct. 10, 2019, at Monona Terrace in Madison, after accepting the award.

    ‘Extraordinarily Positioned’

    His success, he said, is also thanks to his family – especially his mother, in particular after his father passed away when he was 8 years old. “The two requirements to be OK in my household were that you work hard and get good grades.”

    A middle child of eight siblings, he said he is “extraordinarily blessed” to have his family, where all members are “very well accomplished.” Those family members include lawyers – his sister, Carol Ashley, in Chicago, niece Kori Ashley of Milwaukee, currently chair of the State Bar Board of Directors – and his daughter Elise, who is a 1L at U.W. Law School. His daughter Zoe is currently at junior at U.W.-Madison, and is considering law school.

    He describes his wife, Felita Daniels Ashley – the director of school development at the TransCenter for Youth in Milwaukee – as “my rock and soul mate.”

    Judge Ashley met a slight bump in the road three years ago – an encounter with cancer, thankfully now resolved. “It makes you think what is really important to you,” he said. “Nothing is more important than my wife, my two children, and my family.”

    His vow to slow down at the time didn’t last long. He now serves on committees that focus on efforts close to his heart, such as the Milwaukee Justice System’s Race Equity and Procedural Justice Committee, the Governor’s Equal Justice Commission. He also teaches in the judicial college.

    He worked for many years as chair of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Effective Justice Strategies Subcommittee, working toward statewide improvements to the justice system in Wisconsin.

    He’s also in demand as a speaker. “It is important to be out in the community to talk about these things,” he said. “It is an opportunity to talk to people – and if people can hear me and communicate with me, then I also gain perspective.”

    Making the Difficult Conversation

    Judge Ashley has devoted time, experience, and understanding to help the State Bar’s efforts for greater diversity and inclusion within the Bar – both as an active Bar member and as chair of its Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Committee.

    “It has been my life pleasure to work with people whose focus is not about them, but about making things better,” Judge Ashley said.

    The more he is able to interact with people, learning their perspectives, “the more I am empowered and more informed,” Judge Ashley said. “That’s key.”

    An example is the discussions on implicit or unconscious bias – and that structural problems hold people back from the success they can achieve. “It’s a difficult discussion,” he said. “But if you avoid it, you don’t make progress.” So, he said, you make those difficult conversations, and perhaps slowly there is progress.

    He’s since realized that being a judge is his “niche.” “It is extraordinarily gratifying to work with people who are committed to making changes,” Judge Ashley said. “I’ve had so many opportunities to work with many good people over the years.”

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