Judge Larisa Benitez-Morgan, appointed to the Kenosha County Circuit Court early this year, will have a challenger in her first run for election this spring.
Benitez-Morgan was appointed to the Branch 1 seat in February, chosen by Gov. Tony Evers to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of longtime Judge David Bastianelli. She confirmed she is planning to run for election in April to try to retain the seat.
Also planning to run for the seat is Kenosha resident Gerad Dougvillo. A former prosecutor in Racine County, Dougvillo has been working since 2016 as a court commissioner in Walworth County.
The seat is one of two judgeships that will be up for election in April. With Judge Mary K. Wagner announcing she will step down at the end of her term, three candidates plan to run for her Branch 6 seat. Competing for Wagner’s seat are Deputy Kenosha County District Attorney Angelina Gabriele, attorney Angela Cunningham, and Elizabeth Pfeuffer, a Kenosha County court commissioner.
Benitez-Morgan, 57, became a judge just as the COVID-19 pandemic upended most aspects of life, including the court system. Since taking the bench, most court proceedings have been online, and she never had the usual investiture ceremony for judges because of limits on public gatherings.
But despite those challenges, Benitez-Morgan said, she said she has found her work as a judge even more rewarding than she hoped. “It’s been better than expected, I really really love this job,” she said.
Prior to her appointment to the bench, Benitez-Morgan, a Kenosha resident for about 24 years, was an attorney with the Kenosha County Public Defender’s office. As a public defender she handled juvenile cases and criminal defense, handling a number of high-profile cases including the ongoing Chrystul Kizer homicide case that has received international attention.
She was in private practice as a civil attorney working on issues like real estate, trademark and copyright law before joining the public defender’s office in 2008.
At the public defender’s office, she was known for helping clients well beyond handling their cases, working with adult clients to make sure they had received a GED if they had not finished high school and meeting young clients to work on tutoring on weekends.
As judge, Benitez-Morgan said she wants to make sure that everyone involved in a case, from victims to defendants to family members and attorneys, all feel they are heard and treated respectfully.
“For that person coming into court, whether it’s the victim, the parent of a victim, the defendant—for that moment, it is the most important day and time of their life and it needs to be respected and treated that way,” Benitez-Morgan said.
Benitez-Morgan, who is Hispanic, said she is the first person of color to serve as judge in Kenosha or the surrounding counties of Racine and Walworth, and she thinks that is an important change. “I’m a big believer in the thought that the judiciary should be reflective of the community it services,” she said.
Dougvillo, 39, grew up in Kenosha, attended Marquette University for his undergraduate degree and — like Benitez-Morgan — attended John Marshall Law School in Chicago. He joined the Racine County District Attorney’s Office in 2009 as an assistant district attorney, working his way up in the office to become a specialist in prosecuting white collar and financial crimes.
He was appointed in 2016 to serve as court commissioner for the Walworth County Circuit Court. As commissioner he serves over criminal and civil matters, including handling initial appearances, setting bond, small claims court , traffic court and domestic violence injunctions. While judges must live in the county where they serve, Dougvillo said he has not been required to live in Walworth County as a commissioner, and has continued to live in Kenosha.
“I’m somebody who has been a part of the community my entire life and my family for three generations before that,” he said. “I really have a strong interest in seeing the community grow and seeing it prosper and do well.”
Dougvillo said he has also worked as an educator in Kenosha, for a number of years teaching legal research and writing in the Carthage College paralegal program and serving as adjunct faculty at Herzing University teaching criminal law courses.
“This is something that I’ve had my eye on essentially my whole career, and the opportunity to do that at home in Kenosha was the ultimate goal,” Dougvillo said of his decision to run for the judgeship.
If elected, he said, he would focus on applying the law in the interest of justice. “It’s not the court’s duty to create the law or bend it for a certain will or a certain agenda,” he said. “Within that application of the law you do your best to find and afford justice for the litigants before you.”