With retirement nearing, Welker reflects on 24 years as judge

 

The first half of his 24-year judicial career, spent in the former Rock County Courthouse in Beloit, was the time of his life, he said. He worked alongside his mentor and friend, the late Judge J. Richard Long.

“The best 12 years of my life were the years I spent with Dick Long in Beloit,” Welker said. “We tried to do things as close to alike as possible. That’s one of the really great memories I’m going to have.”

Sworn in Aug. 1, 1988, Welker will retire at the end of July. A rural Eau Claire native, Welker started practicing law locally in the 1970s. The 75-year-old has worked as a teacher and a play director. Through conversations and emails with The Gazette, here are some memories of his time on the bench in Rock County:

“I thought I understood the kind of general people who come through the courts. One thing I hadn’t figured into the equation: I had always represented people who could pay me. I was very, very surprised by the kinds of people I started to see in the courtroom when I started to be a judge.

“I can tell you, the first time I ever had a defendant in front of me for sentencing, it was part of the surprise. I listened to what the district attorney said. I listened to what the defense attorney said. Then I said to the defendant, ‘Is there anything you’d like to say?’

“The attorney had said, ‘He needs to be on probation so he can get a job.’ The district attorney said, ‘You need to get him into a program where he can get counseling.’

“He (the defendant) said, ‘If you really want to help me, what you ought to do is …’

“I said, ‘I’m not here to help you, I’m here to hurt you. My job is to impose a penalty, something that will hurt you so badly that you’ll never want to come back here again.

“He made a body gesture, like, ‘What kind of a stupid judge are you?’

“It was an eye-opener for me. I discovered shortly there is a whole class of people that going to criminal court is just part of their lives. It’s just an accepted part.”

Welker hears civil cases. Forbeck hears criminal cases.

Welker said he had about 100 requests per year when he was on the bench in Beloit. Long got about the same number, Welker said. One year, Long got 600 requests, he said.

“The reason Judge Long had so many substitution requests was that he believed that the criminal court should enforce the law as it is written. He did not look kindly on requests for continuances,” Welker wrote. “I approved of the way he ran the court, and I tried to do things the same way.”

“It leaves at least some room for the maverick, the person who is non-establishment,” Welker said about general elections. “We’re talking about a really important, fundamental right (voting). To have that locked in by a ruling class, a judicial class, a lawyer class, is just wrong.”

“I have a strong belief that all children need good relationships with two involved parents. Every study that has ever been done shows that the strongest force in children having problems (drug usage, criminal involvement, psychological problems, inferior school performance) is children raised in single-parent households with little or no involvement of a second parent.

“I have tried to mitigate the effect of those situations. I suspect that not all judges have the same strong feelings about that subject that I have. I think some lawyers feel that this view is sexist. I can only say that I don’t agree.”

“I would like to find a place where I can make a contribution, where I can feel useful,” Welker said.

He thinks he could put together a two-week program about any number of legal issues and take that program into high schools, for example.

“As a teacher, you can be very inspiring for two weeks,” Welker said.

“When I was a lawyer, I was an advocate, and I think I was a fairly aggressive advocate. Over time, I’ve come to accept people’s foibles a little more than I once did.”

He finds bookbinding to be a good reprieve from the demands of work.

“In my regular job, I deal with things that are very serious matters in people’s lives,” Welker said. “There’s something so wonderful about going over to meet some people who are absolutely, passionately arguing about whether wheat paste or white paste is better.”

He also has worked as a play director in the Janesville area and for a time wrote reviews of plays for The Gazette.

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