By Brandi Makuski
Judge Robert Shannon met with City Times staff in his chambers at the courthouse for this interview on Thurs., Jan. 21. Shannon, 53, is running for a full term as Portage Co. Circuit Court Branch II judge.
Shannon and his family live in Stevens Point. He was appointed by Gov. Scott Walker to fill the remainder of Judge John Finn’s term when Finn retired last year.
The following is a verbatim transcript of Shannon’s interview.
Q: Why are you running for office?
A: I am running primarily because my legal experience is sufficiently broad and diverse enough to be of service to this branch for the litigants who rely on this branch to pull its own weight with the other two [branches]. John Finn’s career was very similar to mine; he spent a long time in private practice and like me started out handling a lot of types of matters, and over the years you become familiar with not only the substantive law on these issues, but also the procedures and practices. And when you are representing clients who are involved in so many types of actions, that’s really the basis as I recognize throughout my 27 years practicing law, that sets apart the best judges from others whose legal experience was in a different direction. A specialist in the law is not best suited to the office in this part of the state. I say that because our circuit courts here in Portage County, unlike in some areas of the state, are trial courts of general jurisdiction. That means the court hears whatever matter is brought before it, whether it’s civil, family, small claims, traffic, criminal or misdemeanor. There’s many hats the judge has to be able to wear, and a lot of times on the same day. Unless and until you’ve developed the experience necessary to understand those areas of law and how they inter-operate and how they’re referenced in that statute, it makes for difficult sledding. I’ve known many judges, and since I got to the bench have met many more, and they will all say it takes two, three, four years to be fully competent and comfortable under all the circumstances that can arise in a general trial court jurisdiction like ours in Portage County. It’s easier starting from the bench. And that’s why [I’m running].
Q: What are you thoughts on alternative sentencing?
A: “I think the concept is good in theory; in practice, we’ll see. I hope these alternative, sort of non-criminal procedural mechanisms work, and they intervene at the right time in the lives of young people, or people who have not yet become intractability involved with substance abuse; that’s really the target, to get in between them and the whole drug culture. Once they enter the criminal system, many are never able to extricate themselves. I haven’t even been doing this job for four months yet, and I’m already seeing people I sentenced once coming back on revocation because they cannot abstain, primarily, from alcohol or whatever drugs are involved. It is so multifaceted that we need real professionals to guide us at the most appropriate stage to have an impact, and that’s what interests me about those programs. It’s eerie to see the same occurrences and ruination of family that people permit themselves to be overcome by their addition. It’s terrifying because now there are cheap, heavy narcotics involved in these situations.
Q: This is a nonpartisan office. Yet, Portage County is very divided on partisan politics. Is it fair for voters to ask your political persuasion before they decide whether to vote for you or not?
A: “It’s uncomfortable, personally for me to have to expose myself publicly. I’ve kind of always avoided that regarding my private life. The whole process has been very uncomfortable — but necessary.”
Q: Why is it necessary for a nonpartisan office?
A: “Well, as you said — it is a divided county. It’s so much different than Wood County, it’s so much different from Marathon County. The difference are hard to follow, hard to diagnose. I don’t know why it exists. But people have very strong feelings about political issues, and even moreso now because of it’s a presidential election year and people become much more interested. It brings a focus to more people than ordinarily would be interested. I think that’s part of it. But deserve to know who wants to hold their judicial offices. Fairly or unfairly. I don’t claim this office should be a partisan office, but people are entitled to know as much about people who want to sit as their judge as possible. It is what it is. The people of the county will get who they want, for good or bad, and they deserve to get who they want.”
Q: You had a swearing-in ceremony shortly after you were appointed. But no one in the courthouse seemed to know about it.
A: “It was a rushed deal.”
Q: Did you notify any media? We never received any notification.
A: “I don’t know; I could check. My wife handled that. But the point was, this [appointment] process was drawn and lengthy. This branch sat vacant for a long time; the reason I started on October 1 was because it was Branch II’s responsibility that month for intake. [Judges] Flugar and Eagon, they’d been doing everything all summer; when I heard that the ordinary rotation would place intake in Branch II, I said, ‘I gotta get there quickly’, and October 1 was a date when John Finn was able to be here. I asked that the rotation not be changed. I agreed to do this job in order to pull my weight, and I’ve pulled my weight from the very first day. I have busted my rear end and I hope it’s been effective. It seems to be; things are flowing back to normal here now with respect to workload and progress of cases.”
“I didn’t think it was appropriate to have a large to witness the swearing-in of a guy who might only be here a few months. At the time I agreed to serve, no one extracted from me any promise or representation that I would run for this job. I had to see if I was suited to it, if I could do it. It’s a helluva job and a helluva lot of responsibility, but now I know I can do it. Anyone elected to a full term is due a proper ceremonial swearing-in; the rest of us, we’re not in line for that.”
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about, something I didn’t ask?
A: Nothing whatsoever.