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:
Q: Do you remember the vision you had about the job when you were elected? Did the job hold up to that vision?
A: “I had a very, very, very busy law practice. I was with Brennan Steil (of Janesville). … I’m not sure I could have practiced law much longer. As time goes on, you get a bigger and bigger pool of people turning to you for help. The 10 o’clock at night phone calls were beginning to take their toll on me.
“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.”
Q: I’ve been told you have the record as the most-often substituted judge in Rock County. Is that an accurate title? Why do you think that is?
A: “That is not true. The most recent year for which there are statistics is 2011. In that year, I had 55 requests for substitution. The highest number of such requests was Judge Kenneth Forbeck who had 243 requests.”
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.”
Q: Many judges retire in mid-term so their replacement can be appointed. You didn’t choose to do that. You were elected, and your replacement was elected. Why?
A: Welker said he thinks people are better suited to choose a judge for their community by voting than a governor by appointment.
“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.”
Q: During the race to replace you, some candidates and others indirectly called you sexist. Is that something you’ve heard? Would you like to comment on where that came from?
A: “Yes, I have heard that. That perception seems to be with respect to family law cases that involve children. I don’t think anyone is making that claim anywhere else.
“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.”
Q: What’s next for you after retirement?
A: Welker has a lifetime of travel and legal education from which to draw material for educational presentations or classes. He would like to share this knowledge with civic clubs looking for speakers or with high school students.
“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.
Q: What are people going to remember about your time on the bench?
A: “I have a hunch that maybe, particularly in the last part of my career, people are going to say, ‘He was a little out of step. He marched to his own drum.’ I hope people are going to say I treated people’s problems seriously.”
Q: What have you learned from your time on the bench? What will you take with you?
A: “I think maybe I’ve learned a little bit more charity than I once had. I think I may have a little more sympathy for the human condition.
“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.”
About James Welker
Where he grew up: In a “drafty, old farmhouse” in rural Eau Claire. At one time, two adults and nine children—including Welker, his siblings and some cousins—lived in the four-bedroom home. Welker avoided talking about his roots until late in life, he said.
Education: In 1959, Welker graduated from UW-Eau Claire as a theater major. Before attending the University of Wisconsin Law School, Welker taught speech and English at Horlick High School in Racine. He coached debate and directed plays, as well. A number of his students went on to become attorneys or judges, including Court of Appeals Judge Richard Brown, Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi and Milwaukee County Judge John Siefert.
Hobbies: Welker spends a lot of time in the bookbindery in his home, where he creates custom bindings for specialty print books. He teaches bookbinding classes. He previously had a binding business in Olde Towne Mall in downtown Janesville.
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.
Family: Wife, Jeanene, a daughter, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.