May 18, 2016 – Contributing to a better understanding of judicial sentencing decisions, volunteering time to help seniors and veterans establish estate plans, and educating the public about the justice system are three of the many ways that Wisconsin lawyers and judges contribute to the community.
The State Bar of Wisconsin will honor Judge Robert VanDeHey, Dera Johnsen-Tracy, and Megan McDermott, along with 14 other lawyer, law firm, and law student award recipients, at the Member Recognition Celebration at the State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference in Green Bay on Thursday, June 16, 2016. The event is free, and all State Bar members and their friends and families are invited to celebrate these individuals.
Judge of the Year: Grant County Circuit Court Judge Robert P. VanDeHey
He’s still got a flip-phone and listens to music on vinyl, and holds degrees in education and law, and minors in history and philosophy.
Grant County Circuit Court Judge Robert P. VanDeHey is the 2016 Judge of the Year.
The award, presented by the State Bar Bench and Bar Committee, recognizes an outstanding circuit court judge who has improved the judicial system during the past year by his or her leadership in advancing the quality of justice, judicial education, or innovative programs.
In all humbleness, he admits to being “a little embarrassed” as the recipient of the award. “I feel I received too much credit for the hard work of a lot of good people,” he said. “There are many judges who are equally or even more deserving of this recognition.”
He’s been re-elected three times after he was appointed judge in 1998 by Gov. Tommy Thompson – following 13 years in private practice – and is hoping for a fourth re-election. He found his affinity for working as a judge as a law clerk to Dane County Judge Susan Steingass after graduating from law school.
“Although I didn't realize it at the time, there was something that appealed to me about trying to understand the law for the sake of understanding the law, rather than as a means to pursue a particular client's case or agenda,” Judge VanDeHey said.
Those who nominated him refer to an issue Judge VanDeHey acted on regarding the image of the judiciary in the media. When Gannett media company published a series of reports in 2015 focusing on the Wisconsin judiciary entitled “WisconsINjustice,” – originally published in several papers, seen here on the website of the Green Bay Press-Gazette – one report focused on judges they said failed to impose mandatory minimum sentences.
“Members of the judiciary were concerned about being unfairly portrayed in the series,” Judge VanDeHey said. Looking into the data, he realized Gannett had not taken account of the delayed effective date of some mandatory minimum sentence legislation and a Court of Appeals decision which, for a period of time, permitted probation without imposing the mandatory minimum. After analyzing the data and conducting his own research, Judge VanDeHey contacted the author of the series.
“The author was trying to present objective data based upon his understanding of public records, but when he and I spoke, he conceded errors. As a result, the database used for the article was pulled from continued online publication,” Judge VanDeHey said.
Due to Judge VanDeHey’s actions, Gannett responded by placing a retraction and a correction on their website, and also completely removed the inaccurate data, said Hon. Randy R. Koschnick, chief judge of the Third Judicial District of Wisconsin. “The manner in which he handled the matter was the epitome of judiciousness.”
Another issue with the series was its use of the simple labels “lenient” and “harsh” to describe sentences which are actually the result of a complex process. “By looking at only the length of the sentences, the article did not encourage its readers to question the common perception that lenient is bad and harsh is good,” Judge VanDeHey said. Those judges who were either presiding over drug courts or following a philosophy that emphasized treatment over punishment were labeled as “extremely lenient.”
“In an era where individuals from Charles Koch and Grover Norquist to President Obama agree that America's tendency of over-incarcerating nonviolent offenders has been a public safety boondoggle, this illustrates the difficulty that judges and the media have when attempting to assess the merits of a particular sentence,” Judge VanDeHey said.
Pro Bono Attorney of the Year Award Goes to Dera L. Johnsen-Tracy
She’s found an area of practice that she loves and is passionate about: estate planning.
The 2016 recipient of the Pro Bono Attorney of the Year is Dera L. Johnsen-Tracy of Madison for her extraordinary commitment to providing pro bono representation with the Wisconsin Wills for Heroes program – which offers the free service to first responders – and the Basic Estate Planning Clinics for Seniors and Veterans program, sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin. The award, presented by the Legal Assistance Committee, recognizes attorneys and organizations for their outstanding pro bono service.
Working 14 years as a paralegal before law school, she quickly learned that she loved the law, its structure and organization. When she moved from her native Texas to Madison, she changed from working for a general practice lawyer to a practice that focused on estate planning.
“I was able to see not only what a wonderful thing a properly drafted estate plan can be, but also the often devastating consequences that can occur when people fail to plan properly,” Johnsen-Tracy said. “I’m a firm believer that everybody needs to have a plan in place.”
But a large barrier for many is that a good estate plan is very expensive. “Many people can’t afford estate planning,” Johnsen-Tracy said.
She volunteers for the Wills for Heroes Program and the Basic Estate Planning Clinic for Seniors and Veterans. “They need a plan in place, and they’re always so wonderful to work with,” Johnsen-Tracy said.
She, along with her law partner John Horn of Horn & Johnsen S.C., Madison, is also a frequent presenter at various conferences throughout Wisconsin.
As far as being recipient of the award, “My jaw literally dropped when I got that email,” she said. “I’m still in awe. I was absolutely not expecting it.”
2016 Gordon Sinykin Award of Excellence Goes to Megan McDermott
Megan McDermott, attorney and lecturer at the U.W. Law School in Madison, is the winner of the 2016 Gordon Sinykin Award of Excellence.
The award, presented by the Wisconsin Law Foundation, recognizes a lawyer, law firm, or group of lawyers for their work on an individual law-related education or public service project.
McDermott is honored for her role with the Our Courts program, the innovative outreach program, supported by the Foundation, that increases public knowledge of the state court system. As program chair, McDermott led a team of lawyers, judges, and court staff in conceiving and developing the first Our Courts program, Myths and Realities in Wisconsin’s Courts. Most recently, she was instrumental in developing the new criminal courts program, added this year to the program.
“I’ve always loved the concept of explaining to people who haven’t gone to law school how the legal system works,” McDermott 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.
It’s important that people understand that not all judges are Judge Judy. “So much of what we see about judges is only in the media,” which does not reflect much of reality, where judges usually do more listening than talking, she said.
An active volunteer on the State Bar’s Public Education Committee, she currently serves as co-chair of the Media Law Subcommittee. She also recently completed her second three-year term as a member of the State Bar's Standing Committee on Professional Ethics.
“I’m impressed by her dedication and hard work,” said Kevin Lonergan, chair of the Public Education Committee.
Celebrate with the Award Recipients at Annual Meeting & Conference in Green Bay on June 16
This year’s awards will be given out at the Member Recognition Celebration at the 2016 State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference in Green Bay on Thursday, June 16. The event is free, and all State Bar members and their friends and families are invited to celebrate these individuals.
Read more about those being honored at the Member Recognition Celebration.