Judge Gritton Must Explain Substitutions

by Tony Palmeri

August 14, 2005

Winnebago County Fourth District Circuit Court Judge Thomas Gritton is up for reelection in 2006. Before becoming a judge in 2000, Gritton was a Deputy District Attorney under Joseph Paulus, the rogue Winnebago County District Attorney convicted of taking bribes and filing false tax returns. During an appearance on "Commentary" with Jim Mather and I during the 2000 campaign, Gritton said he was "proud" to be supported by Paulus. At the time of Paulus' conviction (April 2004) Gritton told the Oshkosh Northwesthern he was unaware of any wrongdoing in the office. In May of 2004, Gritton told the Northwestern he "recalled only one time that an assistant came to him with concerns about one of Paulus’ recommended charge amendments."

Since Paulus' conviction, the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Winnebago County District Attorney's office have been carrying out an ongoing probe of possible misdeeds that occurred during his tenure. So far no information has been released which would implicate Mr. Gritton in any wrongdoing during his time as Deputy DA.

Whether Judge Gritton's ties to Joe Paulus will become campaign fodder for a possible opponent in 2006 remains to be seen. What should become an issue, however, is the fact that parties to civil action have requested substitutions for Judge Gritton at a rate alarmingly higher than any other judge in the circuit. The right to request a substitution is granted in Wisconsin Statute 801.58.

Assistant District Attorney Mike Balskus recently requested a report on substitutions for the circuit judges in Winnebago County. At my request, he forwarded me the information he received from District Court Administrator Jerry Lang, summarized in Table 1:

Table 1: Winnebago County Circuit Court District 4 Judge Substitutions: 1/1/2000 thru 12/31/2004

Judge
Subs
Total
Carver, William J.
24
24
Crane, William E.
16
16
Gritton, Thomas J.
1025
1025
Haase, Robert A.
64
64
Hawley, Robert
80
80
Key, Barbara
98
98
Schmidt, Bruce K.
88
88
Woldt, Scott C.
17
17
Total
1412
1412

As shown in the table, over a four-year period the closest to Gritton's 1025 substitution requests was judge Barbara Hart-Hey's 98. Such an imbalance raises a wealth of questions. Why do so many visitors to the Fourth Circuit want a judge other than Gritton? Is it because he is perceived as being too tough? Unfair? Connected to Paulus? What is going on here?

On July 15, 2003 the Appleton Post Crescent reported that in a federal probe of bribery allegations, Appleton attorney Richard Bollenbeck declined to testify as to whether he had paid bribes to Joe Paulus or former Outagamie County DA Vince Biskupic. In the story, former Bollenbeck client Melinda Otto "alleges Bollenbeck promised her a lenient sentence based on his ties to Paulus and Winnebago County Circuit Judge Tom Gritton, who presided over her case."

Could possible ties to Bollenbeck or others involved in the federal probe have something to do with the high amount of substitutions? We don't know. What we do know is that come reelection time, Judge Gritton will have to provide some kind of compelling explanation for the high rate of substitutions.

This story is copyright 2005 by Tony Palmeri.

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