Protecting rights is crucial for new judge
JANESVILLE Protecting individuals' rights is paramount for Rock County's newest judge, Michael Fitzpatrick.
Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Fitzpatrick in August to fill the bench vacated by retiring Judge Michael Byron. Before donning judge's robes, Fitzpatrick worked 25 years for Janesville's Brennan, Steil & Basting law firm.
A large part of his work in private practice was to ensure the rights and protection of children in abuse and/or divorce cases.
Before Fitzpatrick studied law at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, he taught special education students at a high school in Carlyle, Iowa.
"I enjoyed teaching very much, but I didn't know if I would be so fulfilled in my life," Fitzpatrick said. "It's one of the experiences that I brought to the bench that provides insight to people with special needs, not only them but all people who need their rights protected, whether they be children or people with special needs."
When he worked with kids who had become children in need of protection and/or services—CHIPS cases—Fitzpatrick dealt with some of the most difficult situations he has encountered in both his personal and professional lives.
"Courts just couldn't fix the enormity of the problems for some families," the judge said. "You want to do more, but there are limits to what attorneys and judges can do for some people."
Fitzpatrick earned both academic and athletic scholarships to attend Drake. He ran both cross-country and track—half mile, mile and mile relay. Up until a few years ago, he still ran competitively—40 and older masters division—in the annual Drake Relays.
Slim and fit, he runs about 50 miles a week to stay in shape.
Keeping his court calendar in shape while keeping people's personal lives in mind is a challenge.
The depth and breadth of his private practice—from traffic and criminal cases to family law to high-stakes corporate litigation—have helped him as a judge, Fitzpatrick said, "in terms of case management and knowing what the parties are going through. ...
"You have to keep cases moving at a reasonable rate, but you can't just ram cases through because it's people we're dealing with and problems arise for them," the judge said. "You always have to remember you're dealing with people and urgent situations arise ... but you do have to keep cases moving to keep the system working."
Moving from the attorneys' table to the judge's bench was "as if someone who knows how to play basketball and has played basketball all his life is asked not to come in and play but to come in from the sidelines to referee.
"Your whole perspective of the game changes. That's what's so fascinating and very rewarding," Fitzpatrick said.
A judge must not only protect individual rights but also strip them from the guilty.
"Sentencing someone to prison or jail is the most serious thing a judge does," Fitzpatrick said. "I find it's a time-consuming process. Before someone loses their liberty, it's only appropriate for the judge to look very hard at the case to do what's right for the community and the judicial system."
Rock County's newest judge—Michael Fitzpatrick, 50, Janesville—met his wife of 27 years, Sharon, when both were students working at the Drake University Student Union.
Fitzpatrick earned a bachelor's degree in history, two teaching certificates and his law degree at Drake.
Sharon is a substitute teacher for the Janesville School District and St. John Vianney Catholic School. The Fitzpatricks have two children: Michelle, who is studying law at Drake, and Tom, a sophomore at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
Michelle is the second-generation Fitzpatrick to study law. Her paternal grandfather was a letter carrier in Judge Fitzpatrick's hometown of Appleton.
Fitzpatrick said he intends to run in the spring elections for the Rock County Court judge position to which he was appointed in August.
In a recent interview, Fitzpatrick was asked not only about his professional career as a lawyer but also about personal aspects of his life. His answers:
Personal reading: He prefers history and biographies and recently read "1776" by David McCullough and a biography of George Washington.
Favorite music: Classical while working, classic rock 'n' roll while driving.
Favorite rock band: The Beatles.
Favorite TV: News and "Lost."
If you could have dinner with any three people from history, they would be? George Washington, Julius Caesar and Fitzpatrick's maternal grandfather, Forrest Banning, a rancher in Montana whom Fitzpatrick never met but a man said to resemble and have acted just like Fitzpatrick.