Wisconsin has been home to some pitched federal judicial confirmation battles during both the Obama and Trump Administrations, as the state’s politically divided senate duo have alternately cooperated and clashed on nominees. As such, it’ll be interesting to see which side of that pattern Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge William Pocan will follow.
William S. Pocan received his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in 1981 and his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1984. After a year as an associate at Brookhouse & Brookhouse in Kenosha, Pocan joined Jastroch & LaBarge, where he stayed until 2006.
In 2006, Governor Jim Doyle appointed Pocan to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, where Pocan has served ever since.
In 2014, Pocan was one of three candidates recommended to President Barack Obama to replace Judge Charles Clevert on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Gayle Worland, Three Nominees for Eastern District Judgeship Named, Wisconsin State Journal, Feb. 15, 2014, https://madison.com/wsj/news/local/crime_and_courts/three-nominees-for-eastern-district-court-judgeship-named/article_ff3e8bc3-9cbf-55c0-b516-58df781cd045.html. President Obama nominated U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Pamela Pepper, who was confirmed and currently serves on the bench.
History of the Seat
Pocan has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, to a seat vacated on December 31, 2019, by Judge William Griesbach. In June 2021, Pocan was one of four candidates recommended by the White House for the vacancy by Wisconsin senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively. See Craig Gilbert, Baldwin and Johnson Bring Forward Four Candidates to Fill Federal Judgeship in Green Bay, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 22, 2021, https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/2021/06/22/four-candidates-named-fill-federal-judgeship-green-bay/5312798001/. Pocan was nominated on December 15, 2021.
Pocan has been active in making political donations to Wisconsin candidates, largely giving to Democrats including Supreme Court candidates Shirley Abrahamson, Ann Walsh Bradley, and Louis Butler.
Excluding a year at Brookhouse & Brookhouse, Pocan has spent his entire pre-bench career at the firm of Jastroch & LaBarge, where he focused primarily on plaintiff’s side litigation. Pocan was particularly notable in “Lemon Law” litigation involving cars in poor condition that were sold to consumers. See, e.g., Eric Freedman, Ford Loses Lemon Law Appeal, Automotive News, Mar. 5, 2001. Pocan also represented Adele Garcia, who filed a “Lemon Law” suit after the transmission on her Mazda left her stranded in Montana. See Anita Weier, DOT, Consumers Tell Panel: Don’t Weaken State Lemon Law, Capital Times, Feb. 20, 2004.
Since his appointment in 2006, Pocan has served on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, where he has presided over juvenile, civil, and criminal cases. Among the notable matters he presided over, Pocan awarded a $3.2 million judgment to a man burned in an apartment fire started by a co-tenant, after a jury found the landlord and insurer liable. See Bruce Vielmetti, Tenant Burned in Apartment Fire Wins $3.2 Million Award, Proof and Hearsay, Oct. 12, 2012.
Notably, Pocan rejected a settlement agreement between dairy groups and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, finding that the ruling improperly limited environmental protection authority and powers held by the Department. See Steven Verburg, Judge Denies DNR on Dairies: He Rules Agency Can’t Change Laws to Placate Big Farms, Water Pollution, Wisconsin State Journal, Jan. 16, 2019.
Among other notable rulings, Pocan ruled that Stuart Yates, a convicted sex offender, could have limited visitation with his severely ill 9 year old son, overruling a hospital restriction on such visits. See Ivan Moreno, Milwaukee Sex Offender Granted Limited Visits With Sick Son, A.P., Apr. 3, 2018.
Some of Pocan’s rulings over his fifteen year long judicial career have been reversed by higher courts. For example, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed Pocan’s ruling denying David Turnpaugh compensation for wrongful conviction for solicitation. See Bruce Vielmetti, Appeals Court Says State Owes Man Wrongly Convicted of Soliciting Prostitute, Proof and Hearsay, May 22, 2012.
A couple of points that have yet to be mentioned in this article: Pocan would be the first openly gay judge on the Wisconsin federal bench; he is also the brother of U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a political lineage that does not appear to have caused him active Republican opposition. Overall, Pocan’s nomination will live and die based on Sen. Ron Johnson’s blue slip. Given that the White House chose to nominate him over longtime federal defender Krista Halla Valdes, it is likely that Johnson has agreed not to blue slip Pocan, even if he doesn’t ultimately vote for him.
Obviously with judge Pocan being in his 60’s, Krista Halla Valdes would have been the far better choice. Unfortunately with blue slips still in play, senator Johnson probably insisted this is the nominee he could turn his blue slip in for. It sucks because Trump was able to get a much younger nominee confirmed even with blue slips still in play for him.
It would have been nice if the Democrats had taken the position @Shawn has mentioned several times on this site, which is no blue slips privileges for any senator that cites to over turn the election. Unfortunately since that was not done, I suspect we will see more 60 year olds in purple & red states for the district courts.
If the Democrats did that, then I’d think that the Republicans would likely respond in kind by eliminating blue slips entirely the next time they are in power.
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I agree with you Frank. I see blue slips eventually going away one of these years for district court nominees. I just wish it was the Democrats that did it & took advantage of it first. It likely won’t be sadly.
I think the GOP will eventually get rid blue slips anyway, but I’m not 100% sure of that. It’s not clear to me that the GOP cares all that much about district judges in blue states. I suspect that many have the attitude that any really bad rulings would be overturned by the circuit courts or SCOTUS, and they see “soft on crime” judges in CA or NY a political asset.
I can see the argument both ways right now regarding blue slips for district courts. The legitimate argument for not getting rid of them now is that we don’t have enough time to fill all district court seats at this time anyway, so focus on the ones that are easy to fill. Certainly if the Democrats hold the Senate in 2023, the district court blue slips should be eliminated entirely.
I complete agree with you here Shawn. Keep blue slips for now but if some how Democrats hold the senate, all bets are off in 2023.
Johnson voted against overturning the election despite suggesting that he might; said rule would only apply to those who voted in favor of one or both of the objections on Jan. 6.
Personally I would include anyone who either voted to overturn the election or gave vocal support and regularly minimized the J6 terrorists. Johnson would be clearly included in that group.
My proposal is that those senators should have all their senatorial privileges and courtesies revoked. No blue slips, no holds, nothing from them should be recognized. And they should get the Jesse Helms treatment if they were to propose a non controversial bill/amendment. (In the 1970s/80s, Democrats sometimes filibustered amendments proposed by Helms, then someone else proposed the exact same thing and then they voted for it.)
What angers me in particular when it comes to Wisconsin (But other states as well) is when the Democrats play nice but don’t get the same treatment.
In Wisconsin’s case President Obama had a Democrat senate when an appeals court vacancy opened up but didn’t get his nominee confirmed. But Trump gets his confirmed when he has a Republican senate. I know there were still blue slips for Obama at the time but we lose even on the district courts. Trump gets a conservative judge in his 40’s confirmed but Biden has to settle for a judge literally a few years away from collecting social security.
Now I hear the senate is taking theMLK recess next week instead of this week but they still are taking Monday off. Add in last week which was a complete waste due to the snow storm plus the funeral for the ex Georgia senator & the senate is on track to have more off days this year then last year. We are losing on all fronts when it comes to the judiciary.
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The real problem is that Democrats don’t understand the importance of power and don’t think like the GOP on the judicial nominations. (Hillary Clinton was an exception and is why I think she would have made an excellent President. Sheldon Whitehouse also gets it.) The younger Democrats are learning that however, but people like Feinstein, Durbin, etc have to be pushed to understand this.
TBH, the failure of the Victoria Nourse nomination is on the Obama White House. The Wisconsin senators sent their names to Obama in mid January 2010. They took until mid July to pick Nourse. Had they put this nominee up in March or April, she would have been confirmed.
Regarding the pick of Pocan, I’ve read that Senator Baldwin pushed for him as well. And I’m not so sure that Johnson would blocked Valdes either. He has respected the bipartisan commission’s picks for the district court in the past. Basically what I’m saying here is that I’m far from 100% certain that Johnson is the reason why Pocan was picked here.
No lies detected. I wish it wasn’t true but yup, spot on with everything you said Shawn. It’s truly sad on all accounts
Leahy also shares blame for the Nourse nomination debacle. She was nominated in July 2010 but never got a hearing. Ron Johnson only became a senator in January 2011. There was just zero interest back then in pushing hard on judges.
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That’s true. I get it that passing Obamacare was priority number 1 & the economy was number 2, but after 8 years of GW Bush & the final 2 years of Republican’s blocking Clinton nominees (Including Elana Kagan to the DC Circuit), judges should have been priority #3. Nominating & confirming judges was more like priority #5 if not even lower.
The one good thing about the 50/50 senate is at least Biden & senate Democrats know they are a heartbeat away from losing the majority. Obama having 59 senators for his first 7 months & 60 senators after gave them a sense that they had all of the time in the world. That obviously didn’t pan out too well.
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Perhaps, but most of the blame is on Obama’s admin. If Nourse was nominated in April or May, she would have gotten a hearing and been confirmed. The Wisconsin senators handed four names to the admin in January. She should have been nominated by April.
Hopefully senator Schatz can return to the senate & they can confirm Holly Thomas this week if not more judges as well.