Ron Johnson moves to block William Pocan nomination to federal court

·6 min read
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge William Pocan has been nominated by President Joe Biden to become a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, in the Green Bay division.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge William Pocan has been nominated by President Joe Biden to become a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, in the Green Bay division.

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said late Tuesday that he's opposing the nomination of Milwaukee County Circuit Judge William Pocan to an open seat on the federal court in Green Bay.

Johnson said in a statement he has been "hearing concerns from the Green Bay legal community that they needed a judge who is locally based and actively involved in their community. That is not the case with Judge Pocan."

In the unusually worded statement, Johnson then pivoted and said: "In addition, the tragedy in Waukesha never should have happened."

Subscribe to our On Wisconsin Politics newsletter for the week's political news explained.

Johnson was referring to the November Christmas parade tragedy in Waukesha in which the defendant, Darrell Brooks, was free on $1,000 bail set in a domestic violence case in Milwaukee County involving the same vehicle.

Pocan was not involved in the Brooks case. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said the bail recommendation was a mistake.

"I cannot support someone for a lifetime appointment that has granted low bail for someone charged with violent felonies," Johnson said. "That is not in the best interest of Wisconsinites nor Americans. I look forward to working with President Biden on selecting a suitable nominee.”

More: Assembly passes bail measure requiring court officials to factor in a crime's severity, while Senate passes COVID, gun bills

In June, Johnson and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin recommended Pocan and three other candidates to fill the vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Their names were forwarded to the White House.

The candidates were recommended to Johnson and Baldwin by the bipartisan Wisconsin Federal Nominating Commission.

Last week, Baldwin submitted a so-called blue slip to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, signaling her support for Pocan, the brother of Democratic U.S. Rep Mark Pocan.

It's uncertain if the nomination can move forward without Johnson's support.

On Tuesday, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rated Pocan as "well qualified" for the judicial position.

A White House spokesman was critical of Johnson's stance.

"Judge Pocan is as deeply qualified today as he was when Senator Johnson recommended him to the President for this exact vacancy in June," Andrew J. Bates said in a statement. "He is a respected member of the Wisconsin legal community and the American Bar Association just gave him their highest rating. And he had absolutely no connection to the Waukesha tragedy.

"Judge Pocan would also make history as the first LGBTQ federal judge for Wisconsin. Senator Johnson’s arbitrary reversal is unfortunate, and the rationale given for it is without foundation.”

Rick Esenberg, a member of the state's federal nominating commission, said Baldwin and Johnson "haven't always agreed with the outcome of the commission process."

Esenberg, a conservative, noted that in 2018 Baldwin "refused to move forward" on the nomination of Gordon Giampietro to a federal judgeship in the state's Eastern District.

"Senator Johnson has decided that he can't support Judge Pocan," Esenberg said. "That's his call."

Lester Pines, a Democrat and commission member, said: "Johnson does not appear to understand that Wisconsin requires circuit court judges to determine conditions of release that will ensure the defendants appearance while protecting the public. Cash bail is not the default."

He called Pocan "eminently qualified."

"He will serve in the Green Bay division and it is possible he would relocate to Green Bay," Pines said. "A few people in the legal community there do not get to pick the judge who will serve there."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that Johnson "is blocking this committee from proceeding on a nomination he recommended to President Biden."

Durbin added that he was "disappointed" in Johnson's "lack of communication" with the committee. Durbin claimed Johnson's staff "did not respond to four separate communications from my staff sent over the course of nearly a month" about the nomination and that his office only heard "second-hand" of Johnson's move to block Pocan.

"Such a lack of communication is unacceptable and frankly disrespectful to the nominee and his family," Durbin said. "I hope Senator Johnson will rethink his position."

Asked about Johnson's claim that Pocan granted low bail for someone involved in violent felonies, the senator's staff on Wednesday pointed to a case involving Davario D. Washington of Milwaukee.

Washington, 21, was charged in November 2014 with two counts of armed robbery. According to the complaint, he robbed a would-be seller of an Xbox gaming console at gunpoint, and stole an iPhone from another man from whom Washington had arranged to buy some shoes. Both sales were initiated via Facebook marketplace.

Court Commissioner Grace Flynn set a $2,500 signature bond at Washington's initial appearance Nov. 29. He made several later court appearances as his lawyer and prosecutors worked toward a plea deal.

On Oct. 10, 2015, Washington was arrested after he fled a stolen car involved in a high-speed chase. He was later charged with stealing that car and three others over the prior three months. All were taken during supposed sales from private sellers who had advertised the cars on Craigslist or Facebook.

In one instance, a man with Washington for the purchase showed a gun to the seller and her three friends before he and Washington drove off with the car without paying.

While test-driving an Infiniti with the seller in September, the complaint states, Washington stopped the car along the way to inspect parts of the exterior. While he and the owner were outside the car, Washington quickly got back in, locked the doors and drove off, running over the owner and breaking his foot.

As soon as Washington was arrested, the prosecutor in the 2014 armed robbery case asked to have his bail increased. Pocan raised it to $5,000 cash the next day, Oct. 13, 2015.

Washington pleaded guilty in both cases in January 2016. Pocan sentenced him to eight years in prison and six years of extended supervision on the two armed robberies, and four more years in prison, and two more on supervision, for two of the car thefts, the one in which the seller was run over, and the one involving a gun. Two of the car theft counts were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.

In an interview, Mark Pocan said his brother "doesn't really do a lot of bail cases and then the one case that has kind of come up that someone is trying to raise is actually the opposite of what Ron is saying the problem is."

He said he was hopeful that Johnson would reverse course.

"I would really be shocked if Ron didn't do the right thing and enlist the blue slip," Mark Pocan said.

Columnist Daniel Bice and reporter Bruce Vielmetti contributed to this report.

Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.

DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Ron Johnson moves to block William Pocan nomination to federal court