By Brandi Makuski
Clerk of Courts Trish Baker met with City Times staff in the City Times office, 73 Sunset Blvd., for this interview on Tues., Jan. 19. Baker, 56, is running as Portage Co. Circuit Court Branch II judge.
Baker and her husband live in Park Ridge. She has served as the clerk of courts since 2011 and also serves on the Park Ridge Village Board and Stevens Point School Board.
The following is a verbatim transcript of Baker’s interview.
Q: Why are you running for judge?
A: “First of all, I have the best qualifications to run for judge, but our courts — all of our government — needs people to step up and say ‘I will serve’. I’ve had a lot of success in the clerk’s office, I’ve had a lot of success as an ADA (assistant district attorney), but I think most relevant is, I’ve had a lot of success positively affecting the courts since I’ve been clerk. I can see, from my vantage point, a lot of places where there could be big improvements. And I’m the only one who can see those, because of my vantage point as chief administrator of the courts for the past four years. And what I have found is I really enjoy being able to positively affect our government and our community. I really enjoy being a part of county government. When I was a prosecutor and a private attorney, you make one big change in that one person’s life. When you’re a member of government, you can affect multiple people positively. As a leader of the courts, which is what the judges are, you can affect whole systems. I can see opportunities for improvement, and I’ve made a lot of really positive changes. But I can only go so far. I feel like I’m at the very edge of what I can do in the role I have right now.”
Q: What are some of those “really positive changes” you speak of?
A: “We have our jail overcrowding problem. We could restructure our intake, for example, and it would impact; one of the things we could implement that would probably save us thousands of dollars is when we do our riverside hearings (bond hearings), why don’t we do a risk assessment at the front end to determine if it’s appropriate to send people out with an ankle monitor instead of incarcerating them? If you come into our courts on Monday or Tuesday, we are so busy. We’re congested. If you come up to the courts on Mondays or Tuesdays you will see people have no private place to talk, they’re crowded in corners. But you come in on a Thursday afternoon, there’s practically nothing going on. Why don’t we change that?
“I also want to change our guardian ad litem payments. We budget $118,000 for guardian ad litem payments, which are stretched over a variety of case items; it could be for a mental hearing, a child abuse hearing, it could be for a family hearing issue. If you have a legitimate dispute about your children, the courts appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the best interests of your children in court. One parent puts up $250 and the other parent puts up $250 but the average bill is about $1,800. Who pays the rest? Ultimately it lays with the taxpayers. Someone in the my office suggested we raise that deposit amount, so it was the idea of someone who works in my office, but I moved it forward. So we changed it to $1,000, and now the county only has to recover $800. That’s something I did that has saved the county a lot of money. But I look at that now and say, ‘You know what? We can still do better’.”
Q: You’re the only candidate not currently practicing law. What else makes you different from other candidates?”
A: “I’m the only one of the four [candidates] who’s gone through an election. I’m the only one of the four who has been elected and truly is 100 percent accountable to the voters. I was first elected to the Park Ridge Board in 2011; I understand that accountability better than anyone else in the race. That’s a really good microcosm of what accountability means. When you have a constituent call you and asks, ‘When is the snow getting plowed?’, that’s accountability. School board is a much bigger example; I’ve been very open and people tell me I’m the only one who responds to them. I feel, as a voter and a taxpayer, that’s what I’ve been hired to do is to respond and tell you my reasoning. As a judge you’re prohibited from doing that, so you handle that accountability differently. You’re elected, you are given the job, by the people of the county. That’s a huge honor and responsibility. I’m the only one of the four who has experienced that. I’m the only one who understands that.
“I have two judges in Marathon County who are helping me, behind the scenes, and [Judge] Jill Falstad, who is my mentor — I did multiple, multiple trials with her — she said, ‘You need to explain what a judge does, and you need to explain a judge makes decisions and that as an elected official you have made decisions that effect people; the buck stops with you, I’ve watch you do that for years’.”
“All of us [candidates] have the legal experience and qualifications to be judge. Really, what people are going to have to chose is what kind of person they want sitting in the chair, in this very important county government role.”
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
A: A lot of people in Portage County don’t know that I was an assistant DA for 10 years. Before I went to law school I had a career in the television and marketing business and I worked at Universal Studios. The last job I had prior to going to law school was working at Universal Studios, Florida. I really wanted to do something more relevant, I really wanted to do something more substantial. That was a great job, it paid well and was a lot of fun and traveling, but I wanted to do something serious that would really make a difference in my community. I took graduate classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in criminal justice to see how I would fare in law classes, and I discovered I really love the law and how positively you can affect people with the law. So I went to law school and graduated in 1996 from Madison. My first job was as a civil attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin, representing victims of domestic violence. So my goal of doing something more public service oriented, that was my first job. Then we moved up here to Portage County from Milwaukee, and my first job up here was as special prosecutor in the Portage County DA’s office, and I worked there for three or four months handling a caseload while another attorney was on maternity leave. I loved it. Then I worked in Marathon County as an assistant DA for just under six years; I absolutely loved being a prosecutor. It felt like being a hand in glove to me. Here, they talk about 35- to 400 cases, I had a caseload of 600 when I left. And I left because my children were in junior high, and I felt like I needed to be closed — five minutes away instead of 45 minutes away — so I opened up a private practice here in Portage County. Then, I was a prosecutor in Waushara County. During my time as a prosecutor I handled over 40 jury trials — you kind of lose track at one point — so I have a tremendous amount of legal experience int he courtroom that people maybe don’t realize, and that’s what I really want people to know about. I really have a lot of legal experience.”