Childhood challenges shaped Judge Scott Wales’ character

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

You won’t find “ventriloquist” among the qualifications at the top of Judge Scott Wales’ campaign website. But the story of how he learned the art provides insight into his character.

Wales was born with Moebius syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that paralyzed one side of his face, freezing facial muscles and greatly restricting movement in one eye and half of his palette. His tongue is partially paralyzed, making speech a great challenge.

Wales was “horribly bullied as a kid,” he says, due to his appearance and his difficulty articulating words and sentences.

The solution came from an unconventional source — a speech pathologist Wales describes as a “disciple” of Edgar Bergen, the 20th century’s best-known ventriloquist. Learning to throw his voice without using his mouth enabled him to speak normally. He had wanted to achieve that goal by age 13 so he could fully participate in his bar mitzvah — and that he did.

Wales says it was that childhood struggle with speech that led him to a career in law. As an attorney, he could lend his voice to clients who lacked the ability to speak effectively for themselves in a legal setting, he says.

The bullying that he endured during his youth also made Wales sympathetic to the underdogs, which motivated his long career as a defense attorney.

He has been a Fox Point municipal judge for eight years.

Wales hopes to bring his lifetime of experience to service on the bench of Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Branch 47, following the retirement of Judge John Siefert.

Wales is seeking the position on the April 4 ballot, facing off against challenger Kristy Yang.

So far, Wales is far ahead of his opponent in endorsements. His backers include 46 judges, 41 prosecutors, more than 100 attorneys, and a large group of public defenders. In fact, 80 percent of the judges who’ve made endorsements in the Branch 47 race have backed Wales over Yang.

Addressing the extra challenges facing the poor

Recognizing how intimidating courtrooms can be, Wales strives to put litigants at ease, he says. He starts each hearing by introducing himself and explaining “how we do things here.” The goal is to enable people to “feel more thoughtful than anxious,” he says, so they can present their cases effectively.

He says that he’s keenly aware of the extra challenges that the legal system presents for poor people.

For example, when people living in poverty are arrested and their bail is set at $500, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to pay it. So, Wales explains, they go directly to jail. That means not only that they might lose their jobs, but also that they’re effectively serving a jail sentence before they’ve even been tried.

After they’re released, Wales says, they have a criminal record hanging over their heads, which limits future career opportunities.

According to Wales, this phenomenon is largely to blame for the nation’s mass-incarceration crisis, particularly in communities of color.

In addition to his 29 years in the legal profession and raising a family, Wales has performed community service. As an attorney, he was an advocate for people of color. He’s served as a literacy tutor at Fratney School and an instructor at MATC. He’s also helped with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s advocacy for the elderly, and is a member of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Retired Municipal Judge James Gramling says he endorsed Wales for the “length and breadth” of his experience, particularly his background as a criminal defense attorney and his work with low-income people.

Grimley met Wales about 25 years ago when both were involved in a high-school mock-trial tournament.

Grimley was also involved with a group that lobbied the Legislature to change the mandatory length of time that drivers’ licenses are suspended for people who fail to pay their fines on time. The two-year suspension disproportionately hurt low-income people who had no other way for getting to their jobs, Grimley said.

His group wanted to reduce the suspension time to one year.

One of the factors holding back the effort was the reluctance of municipal judges to endorse the reduction. As the first municipal judge to endorse the plan, Wales helped give the effort momentum.

Click below for video of Judge Wales discussing Moebius syndrome.