Victim advocates take stand against Dane County judge
Dane County’s leading victim advocates are criticizing a current judge for comments she’s made for years toward sexual assault and domestic violence victims.
The leaders of these Madison nonprofit organizations said their groups have tried to provide training to Dane County Judge Ellen Berz surrounding victim rights but it has not been accepted.
“Our state constitution says that victims of crime are to be treated with dignity and respect, and we wouldn’t be here today if that were the treatment that crime victims were getting in Judge Berz’s courtroom,” said Tony Gibart, the public policy director at End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin. “This is not one incident or two incidents. This is a pattern of incidents. There have been multiple opportunities to change, to become better educated about these issues.”
Shannon Barry with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, Erin Thornley Parisi with the Rape Crisis Center, Jennifer Ginsburg with Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center and Gibart said what finally compelled them to publicly criticize a judge for the first time in any of their careers was Berz’s incarceration last November of a juvenile sexual assault victim because she refused to testify against her attacker in court. The teenage survivor ended up serving more time than her eventually convicted perpetrator.
“It sends an unintended message to everyone else in the community who’s dealing with these really challenging issues that they shouldn’t come forward,” Barry said.
“That was unconscionable,” Ginsburg said.
“I am always open to a discussion about how cases are handled in my courtroom and how the legal process affects the lives of people involved in a case,” Berz wrote in an emailed statement to News 3. “Judges are obligated to decide cases by applying the law to the facts of a case, and no two cases are alike.”
The advocates also cited examples where Berz refused to issue a restraining order to a woman whose partner had been convicted of punching her in the face years earlier and who admitted to threatening her with a knife while she called police in 2016 because she returned to the relationship.
“But you stay with him year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year,” she said to the woman. She told both the woman and the man she did not find either credible and ordered them to “stay away from each other.”
“That brings me to tears,” Barry said. “We know it takes a victim of domestic violence numerous attempts to leave a situation.”
“It is never the victim’s fault when they are being traumatized by any sort of physical violence or threat of physical violence, and (her) statement tears me apart because it undermines the last 20 years of my life and the work that I’ve been trying to do to let victims know that is completely unacceptable and no one should treat them that way,” Barry said.
In another case, Berz denied a temporary restraining order for a woman who testified her husband was stalking her and had recently threatened to kill them, all while he was driving their car. She ruled she did not find the woman “an individual at risk.”
“I kind of want to ask, ‘Who does she think she is?'” said Thornley Parisi. “It’s devastating in the message that it sends to the public: Don’t bother reporting. Don’t bother seeking justice because justice won’t prevail.”
The victim advocates said their colleagues have reached out on numerous occasions to Judge Berz to offer training on the issue, and Barry said they have not “always been received well.” For example, one of Gibart’s colleagues provided a 2015 group training for Dane County judges and sheriff’s department personnel surrounding victim rights and restraining orders. Ten sitting judges attended the event while Berz did not.
“There have been a number of training opportunities that would speak to these issues we’re talking about today,” Gibart said. “They’ve been made available, and Judge Berz has not taken those opportunities.”
In her statement emailed to News 3, Berz said that after being informed by the station of the concerns, she’d reached out immediately to the four leaders who spoke with News 3.
“None of these individuals contacted me directly to discuss a particular concern or to try to arrange a meeting,” she wrote. “I have reached out to them and offered to meet with any of them as soon as today. None committed to meeting this week.”
The advocates said they were hoping to meet as a group with Berz next week to discuss these concerns in person.
During her campaign to replace a Gov. Scott Walker appointee, she wrote a candidate statement for The Capital Times where she promised to “treat all litigants with respect.” The victim advocates said that’s a broken campaign promise.
“She’s clearly demonstrated that she’s not by anyone’s standards,” Ginsburg said. “Ultimately, this is about victim safety. That’s why we’re coming forward because that is what is at stake. This is a critical issue for the health and safety of our community.”
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