May 15, 2019 – He’s a mentor to judges, and, according to those who know him, an exemplary leader.
Retired Sauk County Circuit Court Judge James Evenson is the 2019 recipient of the State Bar of Wisconsin Bench and Bar Committee Lifetime Jurist Award.
The award recognizes jurists who, during their tenure on the bench, are fair and impartial, demonstrate high ideals and personal character, and demonstrate outstanding, long-term judicial service.
“Judge ‘E’, as he was often called, exhibited a high level of integrity, compassion, and fairness on the bench,” said retired Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Alan White, among those who nominated Judge Evenson for the award. “He is one of the finest judges I’ve known.”
Judge Evenson, through his character and legal ability on the bench, strengthened not only the abilities of the judges he mentored, but also the community trust in the role of the judiciary, said retired Guy Reynolds, who nominated Judge Evenson.
During his career on the bench, Judge Evenson streamlined the juvenile court process and the handling of cases involving children in need of protection, improved the education of lawyers seeking to become guardians ad litem, helped to improve courthouse security, and was involved in committees handling drug treatment courts and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council for Sauk County.
“It is time to acknowledge his 30-plus years of extraordinary judicial service,” said Judge Reynolds.
Returning Home to Practice
A Baraboo native, Judge Evenson chose law after graduating from U.W.-Madison with a social work degree. U.W. Law School was a natural choice. “I thought a law degree would give me a lot more flexibility in my work, and I wanted to practice in Wisconsin,” he said.
Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.
After graduating from law school in 1973, he began his practice of law at the Baraboo firm of Hill, Quale, and Hartmann. “I did a general practice – more in family law, but I also did real estate, business, and tax work.”
It wasn’t a difficult decision to return home to practice. “There was opportunity there,” he said.
Then in 1986, an open seat on the Sauk County Circuit Court prompted him to run – the race was contested. “I was fortunate enough to win the general election,” he said.
On Being a New Judge
“The times were very different in 1986. We didn’t have email; the internet was in its infancy. One of the first things I did going on the bench was get my judicial assistant a word processor – a step up from a typewriter,” he said.
Another difference was how new judges were trained. While they attended judicial college about a month after taking office as they do today, there was very little formal mentoring. Initially there was a sense of isolation. “I went from multiple client contacts each day to sitting alone in an office or speaking with people from a distance in the courtroom,” Judge Evenson said. “That was quite an adjustment.”
He reached out for advice on occasion to other judges that he knew. Once he gained experience, he started mentoring new judges. He told them of the isolation he experienced, and that people will treat you differently. “I went from ‘Hi, Jim,’ to ‘Hi, Judge,’” he said. “I tell new judges that it takes time to get comfortable – it took me about two years – because you’ve really not done anything like this before.”
Since he took the bench, much has changed in courtrooms – and not just in technology like email, electronic records, and appearances by video. There are treatment courts for impaired drivers and those with substance use issues. There are fewer trials, discovery rules have changed, and overall, there is a larger caseload.
Improving the Judicial System
Judge Evenson was the presiding judge in Sauk County for more than 25 years, before his retirement in 2016. He served a year as the chair of the Committee of Chief Judges, and served on numerous committees, including the Planning and Policy Advisory Committee (PPAC), the Judicial Conduct Advisory Committee and the Court Records Management Committee.
For eight years he served as chief judge of the Sixth Judicial District. Most chief judges serve six years; he was asked to serve for an additional two. “That is something I am very proud of,” he said.
Now retired, he continues to serve as a reserve judge and private mediator.
His advice for new lawyers coming into the courtroom: “Be prepared, and know your case,” he said. “The theatrics displayed by lawyers is never as important as the substance of what they say.”
Join in the Celebration at the Annual Meeting & Conference in June in Green Bay
Judges Evenson receives his award at the Member Recognition Celebration at 5:30 p.m.; Thursday, June 13, 2019, at the Hyatt Regency Convention Center in downtown Green Bay.
Join the celebration at the State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference. Conference registration is not required.