Sunday, August 2, 2009


The Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (WACDL) has done itself proud. In a year when the local newspapers are arguing over merit based selection verses popular election of judges, the selection of Atty. Rob Henak as recipient of the William Coffey award reflects well upon the selection committee (past presidents of WACDL). The Coffey award is given by WACDL to an individual lawyer who has made significant contributions to professionalism in the criminal practice. Past winners reads like a Who's Who of the practice of criminal defense: Dennis Burke, Howard Eisenberg, Eric Schulenberg and Frank Gimbel to name but a few. Rob's dedication to teaching and assisting other lawyers is well known. However, it was his courageous action in a recent case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court which thrust him into the limelight. Rob put his personal career on the line by challenging the ability of Justice Gableman to hear a criminal case because of demonstrable "actual bias."

I do not use the term "courageous" lightly. Quite frankly it seems to be a phrase that is overused; watch any NFL football telecast for example. During the past month we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the one event and individual that will be remembered for centuries: Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. The Wall Street Journal said it best in describing Armstong: "...he abides by a private code of conduct. He understands that fate has assigned him a historic, if somewhat fortuitous role, and he means to honor the terms of the bargain." While Rob's actions don't come close to Armstrong's, they are guided by the same code of conduct. To step beyond one's own self interest and pursue something greater. Let's us stop honoring celebrity and instead honor courage.

Rob's selection and the qualities he brings to the table stands in stark contrast to the present dispute occurring in the selection process for Dane County Circuit Court Judge. The present dispute between the Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal over how judges should be selected are historical. It is a battle between the Jacksonian vision (popular election) verses the Hamiltonian (merit selection). Whatever the process, there must be a brake or counterpoint to judicial power. For me I'll take the jury as the check.