Rock County Judge James Daley said his hardest moments on the bench were early in his career, when he agonized over passing sentences.
“I was having a really rough time,” he said.
That was when Judge Patrick Rude gave him this advice: ”Jim, Jim, Jim, don’t you understand? Defendants sentence themselves. They bring with them the record of their lives and the crime they have been convicted of.”
Daley took those words to heart in the three decades he has sent criminals to prison, jail or probation. He said he has striven to give those people the dignity they deserved, even at that low point, and to give them a sense of hope that something good could come out of their lives.
Daley, 70, announced Tuesday that he will retire March 2.
Daley’s retirement will allow Gov. Scott Walker to appoint a replacement to serve the rest of Daley’s current term (until 2020) or to appoint a replacement and then set a special election in April 2019, said Reid Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Board.
If Daley had retired before Dec. 1, the law would have triggered an election next April to replace him, Magney said.
Daley said he didn’t consider the political impact of his timing and said he is a strong believer that politics and the administration of justice should not mix.
“Too many people on the bench believe they’re in the judicial wing of the Democratic or Republican party,” he said.
Daley has strong views on many topics. He made a point over the years of asking those convicted of using heroin to identify their gateway drugs.
The answers have consistently been that about 40 percent started with opiate drugs, 40 percent marijuana and 20 percent alcohol, he said.
Daley said marijuana is not just a good-times drug, that it’s as dangerous as alcohol.
Studies have shown that it’s especially damaging at a young age, when it changes brain chemistry, he added.
Daley said he’s troubled at the trend of few jury trials because he believes some defendants are forced into a plea agreement—pleading guilty to a sometimes lesser charge or to get a lesser sentence—even when they didn’t commit the crime.
Lawyers in the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices will say they’re too busy to take on more trials, Daley said, but when he first started, a Rock County judge was hearing about 20 trials a year.
Last year, there were 28 for all seven judges, he said.
Daley is an Elkhorn native who served with the U.S. Marines in combat in Vietnam. He later served in the National Guard from 1974 to 2006, retiring as a brigadier general.
Daley graduated from Marquette Law School in 1981. He was a defense lawyer before becoming Rock County District Attorney in 1985.
Gov. Tommy Thompson appointed Daley to the Rock County bench in 1989. He was last re-elected in 2014. He would have been up for re-election in 2020.
Daley is now presiding judge for the criminal division of Rock County Court. He was presiding judge for the entire circuit court from 1996 to 2015, when he worked with the Rock County Board and the county administrator to create a drug diversion court, a drunken-driving diversion court and the first regional veterans diversion court in Wisconsin.
Daley still presides over the veterans court.
Daley was appointed chief judge of the 5th Judicial Administrative District in 2013, the first time this position was held by a judge from outside of Dane County.
He ran unsuccessfully for state Supreme Court in 2015.
Daley said retirement plans include a trip on Route 66, something he and his wife have discussed for years. He also wants to visit and write about buddies from the Vietnam War.