Each morning at coffee counters around the peninsula, locals weigh in with their opinions about cases in the county courthouse – a co-worker appearing in a DUI case, a cousin in a property dispute, a brother facing a drug charge.
We spout off about what kind of punishment should be doled out to someone accused of embezzlement, theft, or domestic abuse. Maybe we chime in about who is the better parent in a bitter custody dispute.
For all our talk, however, we’ve handed out no sentences when our coffee cups are empty and our shoulders unburdened of our opinions. But for Door County Circuit Court Judges Peter Diltz and Todd Ehlers, taking the bench in a small town often means their job is to do just that – to judge their friends and neighbors.
“A judge shall hear and decide matters assigned to the judge, except those in which recusal is required under sub. (4) or disqualification is required under section 757.19 of the statutes and except when judge substitution is requested and granted.” ~ Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct
In a county of just 27,000 people, a judge would have to lock himself in his home to avoid having friends and family end up in his courtroom at one time or another. Each month Diltz and Ehlers see acquaintances, children of friends, and old clients come before their court.
“You worked with someone, and now one of the first cases you have is their daughter’s divorce,” said the 66-year-old Diltz, who is running unopposed for a fourth term as Branch 2 Judge in the April 3 election. “That’s difficult. You want to do the right thing, and you’re elected to hear cases. But, at the same time, you have to be fair to people.”
Judges have the option to recuse, or remove, themselves from a case, and one might expect a judge in such cases to automatically do so, but Diltz said it’s not so simple.
“We’re elected to hear cases. It’s our job,” Diltz said. “I don’t want to stick someone else with the work just because it’s uncomfortable for me.”
Since judges are elected, they sometimes hear cases in which a campaign contributor is involved. Even then, a judge isn’t obligated to recuse himself.
“We are obligated to disclose that information,” Diltz said. “Then it’s up to the plaintiff or the defendant to decide if they want to seek a change of venue. It may be uncomfortable for me, but I can be fair and unbiased. The question is, what is the perception going to be on the other side? That’s an ongoing issue for any judge.”
The judges said they each recuse themselves from 10 to 12 cases each year.
Ehlers, 54 years old, had a private law practice for 16 years in Sturgeon Bay prior to becoming Branch 1 Judge in 2000. He is also running for a third term in April’s election. That prior experience in private practice has put him in a position to judge a case where someone he once represented in his practice was now in his court, not an easy situation.
“Complete separation of a judge from extra-judicial activities is neither possible nor wise; a judge should not become isolated from the community in which the judge lives.” ~ Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct
Sometimes a person tries to bring up a case as Diltz, who lives in Fish Creek with his wife Kathy, meanders through the aisles of the Sister Bay Piggly Wiggly. Other times they call him at home (both Diltz’ and Ehlers’ numbers are listed in the phone book).
“Sometimes a person will be talking for a couple minutes before I realize that they’re talking about their daughter’s, or their friend’s case, that I have before me,” Diltz says. “I have to stop them right there. It can seem harsh, but you just can’t talk to them about it.”
Diltz said he hasn’t been to Sister Bay’s Fall Festival in 10 years because he’s bound to run into someone who will talk to him about their case. He has turned down many a party invitation because he knows that a person who is involved in a case or a divorce proceeding will be there.
“You try not to let it interfere with your social life, but it happens,” he says. “I don’t stop having a social life, but I might choose to go to a different place because of who I might run into.”
Ehlers said he and Diltz are lucky to work in Door County, where he says most people are smart enough not to cross those boundaries. If they do, he said he’s comfortable dealing with it. After all, he ran for the position.
“You don’t sit in the position we sit in to make friends,” Ehlers says. “In a contested case, 50 percent of the people are going to walk out of the room unhappy with you.”
Still, there’s one line he said shouldn’t be crossed.
“I just don’t want my wife and I don’t want my children to have to deal with it,” Ehlers says. “During one soccer game a sibling of another player was talking to her mother and she turns around and goes off on me about what happened in their case. I was sitting there with my wife and daughter. That was probably the most uncomfortable experience I’ve had.”
“A judge may not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment.” ~ Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct
Ehlers, who lives in Jacksonport with his wife Cynthia, said some of the most difficult cases are now coming before him as his two children reach adulthood.
“Friends of my kids are now coming before me sometimes,” he said. “Kids I coached are coming before me with drug problems. Those are really sad to me. Kids I remember running around playing soccer, and here they are at 18 fighting with their girlfriend who they have a child with. It’s a tough part of the job.”
Both judges said child custody cases are the most taxing.
“Any time you have family and child custody cases, those are horrible to do,” Ehlers says. “The emotions are very high.”
Other types of cases are a matter of law, the judges said, but custody hearings are often a matter of making a subjective decision about the abilities of a parent.
“There’s no dividing that child up,” Ehlers said. “There’s no bad guy, but you have to determine which of the parents the child is going to spend most of their time with. That’s hard.”
And when the decision is made, the case isn’t always over.
“If you know one of the families you’re probably going to run into them later,” Diltz said. “Decisions that we make cause relationships that we have to deteriorate. But that’s the job and that’s just the way it is.”