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Bayfield County's next DA pitches in on Douglas County caseload

Douglas County has a temporary, part-time solution to staffing the District Attorney's Office as the search continues for the county's next assistant district attorney. Bayfield County's next district attorney, Kim Lawton, is filling in on a part...

Douglas County has a temporary, part-time solution to staffing the District Attorney's Office as the search continues for the county's next assistant district attorney.

Bayfield County's next district attorney, Kim Lawton, is filling in on a part-time basis. Lawton, a private practice attorney in the Washburn-Ashland area, said she decided to run for Bayfield's only prosecutorial job because she felt there wasn't enough being done to protect children and domestic abuse victims in Bayfield County.

"I contemplated it for multiple years before I had decided to run," Lawton said. "I dug into some of the statistics and it bared out. Bayfield County had an 80 percent clearance rate, which means it was more clogged up than it should have been."

She said the same was true when she looked into criminal cases. She said there was a higher-than-average dismissal rate for cases in Bayfield County. According to Wisconsin court statistics, more than one-third of the 150 felonies charged were dismissed before they ever got to trial last year. In Douglas County, only about 13.5 percent of the 465 felonies charged were dismissed before trial in 2015.

"I felt I could bring new technology and new energy to the office," Lawton said.

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Lawton challenged incumbent DA Fred Bourg and defeated him in the primary with 73 percent of the vote. She's running unopposed in the Nov. 8 election.

An attorney since 2010, Lawton opened her own practice in 2012, serving people in Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas and Iron counties.

And now she's serving as a part-time assistant district attorney in Superior, learning the ropes from a 25-year prosecutor, Blank.

"It was such a unique opportunity," Lawton said. "I believe Mr. Blank has 25 or 26 years of experience, so this was gold."

She said she jumped at the opportunity to learn the job from a seasoned prosecutor, and Douglas County's high case load with the demands of being very short-staffed.

"If I can learn something, I will," Lawton said. "You can't run an office for 25-plus years and not know what you're doing."

According to a workload analysis of district attorney's offices throughout the state performed by the Wisconsin Department of Administration, Douglas County's caseload creates a need for 6.5 prosecuting attorneys, but is only funded for 3.5 attorneys.

The office has been down one full-time attorney since July, when assistant district attorney, Erica Ellenwood, resigned.

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Blank is now looking for his 10th assistant district attorney in seven years, and he said, the pickings are slim. While Blank had eight candidates in the latest round of hiring, he offered interviews to three; two declined, and the third, an attorney from the Milwaukee area decided not to relocate to Superior.

"I have made my pitch to the state and county for additional staff for the DA's office based on caseload and state workload analysis," Blank said. However, the county's Public Safety Committee denied the request last month for additional county-level staff because of ongoing budget challenges.

Blank said he is excited to have Lawton's help for the next few months, but it also perpetuates what is becoming a tradition in the office - training prosecutors to go to work elsewhere.

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