Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) has considered moving her career toward the judicial branch for some time. After learning the news that Gov. Tony Evers was appointing her to Dane County Circuit Court Brach 12, the seat being vacated by Justice-elect Jill Karofsky, Taylor recalled a conversation with one of her colleagues years ago.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” says Taylor. “The person reminded me that I’d said that when I thought about my career in 10 years, this is where I’d want to be. I’ve always admired the iconic judges, especially the female powerhouses.”
In addition to retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who focused on gender equity law — Taylor lists Dane County Circuit Judge Moria Krueger who retired in 2006 and for whom she clerked during her last year in law school, as a role model.
Taylor’s first job out of law school was at the small firm of Lynn Adelman, a former state senator who became a federal judge, and was another of her mentors.
“Chris Taylor has devoted her life to fighting for people’s legal rights, having worked as an attorney in private practice, a nonprofit leader, and most recently in the Wisconsin Legislature,” said Evers in announcing his appointment Thursday morning. “This passion for justice and the law will make her an excellent addition to the Dane County Circuit Court.”
Taylor asked her mother recently if she remembered her mentioning, as a child, any other job she wanted to do other than be an attorney. Her mom said no.
“Trying to make our community and our state and our nation better for people, trying to make it more fair, that’s what has motivated me since I was a little kid. I saw from a very early age that the law could be a powerful tool in remedying unfairness.”
In a style colleagues on both sides of the aisle — who cite her as among the most liberal, outspoken and fiery representatives — will recognize from the passion she brought to her legislative floor speeches, Taylor adds, “Growing up in the 1970s, the gender and equity stuff really made me mad as a little kid. I really felt it. There were lawsuits being brought to challenge gender stereotyping. I never remember wanting to be anything else other than an attorney. I saw that the law could be powerful.”
Path to the bench
Taylor’s appointment is the third appointment Evers has made in recent weeks to the Dane County Circuit bench — she follows Jacob Frost and Mario White. Being a lawyer made her a better legislator, she says, and now having been a legislator will make her a better judge.
Responding to the appointment, Karofsky agreed. “Chris Taylor’s experience as an attorney and a legislator make her uniquely qualified to be a circuit court judge,” Karofsky said. “She understands how laws are created and how they impact real people. She will be a tremendous asset to the Dane County bench.”
Taylor, who is among the most prolific authors of bills in her five terms in the Assembly with 250 plus bills and resolutions under her belt, has often focused on issues of gender, race, bias and policing reform. A police reform bill she co-authored with state Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) is being held up by Evers and others as policy that should become law immediately to address some of the underlying issues raised by the George Floyd killing by Minneapolis police, Black Lives Matter and police brutality protests.
Taylor vows that work will continue — in the Assembly with others who are dedicated to the cause and in a different manner in the work she will do on the bench.
“You know, I was really grateful to have a legal background, it made me a better legislator,” she says. “Judges have a role in making sure that evidence that comes in is procured legally and is not based on improper factors like race. So there’s a big role that judges have in identifying implicit bias, in how evidence is collected, whether it should be admitted to court, and there’s a huge role that judges play in sentencing.
“So the experience I have working on police reform, I think, is really important. And I think it’s going to continue to inform what I do.”
Taylor is looking forward to a saner schedule and the ability to have a more direct impact after 10 years in the Legislature, including her most recent role as one of four Democrats deeply in the minority on the powerful Joint Finance Committee, a role she often used as a bully pulpit.
The first 15 years of her legal career began in small law firms, where she gained broad experience from research to the courtroom on topics such as civil litigation and family law. She served at in-house counsel at Planned Parenthood for the next eight years — something the group needed as it faced legal challenges and legislative attacks on its practices — until she became a legislator.
Taylor sees the current moment, marked by protests and Black Lives Matter rallies all across the U.S. and throughout Wisconsin as another good time for a transition. “I really think that it is a venue where you still can do a lot of good for people,” she says of the circuit court. “Unlike the Legislature where, with the current leadership up there, people are really shortchanged. They really are not being heard and they’re not being listened to. But at the trial court level and even at the Court of Appeals level, the judiciary is still really functioning — it’s still really a place where people can get a fair shot. And judges have a big impact on things like criminal justice reform. And there’s a lot of good that I think can be done and that’s another reason why it’s just so appealing to me.”
Police reform to justice reform
Ever since Paul Heenan was shot and killed by a police officer in her district in 2012, the year after Taylor won a special election, Taylor has been looking at the concept of police reform. So there is some irony in the fact that legislation she has been pushing for years is only now moving to the forefront.
Taylor feels she’s done what she can in the current environment around this and other vital topics. But she urges her colleagues to keep pushing for change. She is leaving a hyper-partisan environment in the Legislature that she has long viewed as unfair because of gerrymandering, voter suppression and even rule changes under Speaker Robin Vos that she says have suppressed Democratic participation in governing.
Her advice to her colleagues: “Just keep fighting for the people Just keep plowing forward. Try not to get caught up in this partisan environment, just keep advocating for what is right and what the people need.”
Taylor has a reputation for being relentless and for biting rhetoric that has often drawn heated rebuke and made her a target for Republican colleagues, who openly mock or chide her on the floor. She takes it in stride. She knows she drove some fellow legislators crazy, but she says even her detractors would likely admit she was a hard worker, doing a lawyerly amount of thorough research.
An example of a recent success was her work co-chairing a committee with Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) that led to the new law regulating the procedures and use of footage from police body cameras.
After her appointment was announced Thursday, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) posted this on Twitter:
“Me: Dane County court judges can’t possibly get more liberal.
Evers: Hold my beer.”
Me: Dane County court judges can’t possibly get more liberal.
Evers: Hold my beer. https://t.co/8T11MZaAtz
— Jim Steineke (@jimsteineke) June 11, 2020
And here is Taylor’s response: “Well, he’s just gonna miss me.”