Judge Gregory Grau poses for a photo on May 20, 2016, his last day before retiring after 21 years on the bench in Branch 4 of the Marathon County Circuit Court. Judge Grau is the 2020 recipient of the State Bar of Wisconsin Bench and Bar Committee Lifetime Jurist Award. Photo: © Wausau Daily Herald – USA TODAY NETWORK
May 20, 2020 – People light up, happy to see him, when Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Gregory Grau enters the courthouse – even four years after his retirement, as he returns occasionally as a reserve judge.
His colleagues – including fellow judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and court staff – agree that Judge Grau handles hearings with an “even temperament, patience, and respectfulness to all people appearing before him,” according to Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Jill Falstad.
Judge Grau is the 2020 recipient of the State Bar of Wisconsin Bench and Bar Committee Lifetime Jurist Award. Due to COVID-19 and concerns for the safety of State Bar members, the award recipients are celebrated via video. Join in and see the ceremony on WisBar.org, including Judge Grau's acceptance remarks.
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 Falstad says Judge Grau, “is the gold standard of judges. Over the 21 years he served as a judge, he was consistently thoughtful, hard-working, insightful, and fair.”
Judge Grau “is a great communicator and a great listener,” Judge Falstad said. He establishes rapport easily with those before him – from teens appearing for truancy hearings, to pro se litigants, to seasoned trial attorneys. He continues to be the “go to” person for those who have questions, “if he has a minute. And he always does.”
Judge Grau reacted to news of the award with good humor. “I want it to be known that I dissent from this decision, because I unequivocally believe there are judges much more deserving of this than I am,” he said. “I just want the record to be clear on that.”
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.
Judge Grau is a native of Racine, moving to Madison for his undergraduate degree and law school. In the summer before his 3L year, he interned in the Wausau District Attorney’s Office via the prosecutor’s program at U.W. Law School. That experience, which included supervised time in courtrooms, was extremely valuable, he said, and prompted his interest in trial work.
When he graduated from law school in 1984, an ADA position was open in Marathon County. “They made the mistake of hiring me, having known me the previous summer,” he joked.
Judge Grau, working early on as assistant district attorney and later as district attorney, became interested in running for a judicial seat. “You’re in the courtroom a lot as a D.A.,” Judge Grau said. “You see how judges impact the outcome of cases and the impact they have on the people who must come to court. I wanted to step up and try to make a difference.”
Judge Grau began his first judicial term in 1995, ultimately serving three and a half terms before retiring May 20, 2016.
Along the way, he served as chief judge of the ninth judicial district, 2008-12. That position allows you to “see the many different ways of handling a courtroom. You see some interesting things that you never would have thought of yourself,” Judge Grau said.
The View from the Bench
The view from the bench – literally higher than everyone – is substantially different from the “myopic view” at the prosecutor’s or defense table, Judge Grau said.
“As a new judge, I was struck by the little things you pick up on when you can see everything at once … it helps you figure out the whole story.”
“You’re not just making a record for the court of appeals,” says Judge Grau. “You’re trying to change lives, so that defendants can make good decisions and not wind up back in court.”
“You see how judges impact the outcome of cases and the impact they have on the people who must come to court. I wanted to step up and try to make a difference.”
Judge Grau gained a view from the bench earlier than many, thanks to his wife Kim, who was his girlfriend while in law school in the 1980s. Kim was a court reporter in Madison, for federal judges John Shabaz and Barbara Crabb. She paid him 5 cents a page to proofread her transcripts prior to submitting them to the court.
Apart from the job providing “good money” at the time, “I read thousands of pages of the work of these two outstanding judges,” while in law school, Judge Grau said. “It really brought law to life for me and taught me so much.”
Connecting Prison with Truancy
Shortly after coming to the bench, Judge Grau implemented a new truancy court in Marathon County in 1996. It is still going strong – proof, he says, of its efficacy.
After seeing many criminal cases where defendants had truancy issues as high school students, Judge Grau saw a direct correlation between high school dropouts and those going to prison. Truancy is often a herald of existing problems in a student’s life – whether mental health issues, addiction, child abuse, or other trauma. “Truancy court is a very early intervention,” he said. “In getting kids to graduate and get their degree, we hope there’s a more positive destination in their lives.”
Since his retirement, Judge Grau is participating in a truancy prevention pilot program at a local school, “meeting with the kids up close and personal” to prevent them from having to go to court in the first place. The program connects the students with counseling and other services that help bolster their lives and participation in school.
From ‘Muddling’ to Mentoring
Judge Grau has high praise for the Wisconsin Judicial College that educates new judges. Yet, he vividly recalls those early years on the bench. “Judges received little formal mentoring after completing the college.” His first day on the bench “I muddled through the hearings,” he admits. Since then, the process has improved greatly, and he is now a dedicated judicial mentor. “It’s good that new judges sit with experienced ones for a period of time.”
After a point, you’re on your own. That’s when a new judge needs someone to turn to for the myriad questions that come up. “I always tried to fill that role if they wanted it. I thought that was really important and worth the time,” he said.
You Never Know What You’ll Encounter
One of the great things about the job is the people you see when you walk into the courtroom, he says. “You never know what you’re going to encounter. It’s always interesting.”
Like the day a plaintiff at trial entered the courtroom with a brown paper shopping bag of manure. “Turned out the dispositive issue of the case was whether the manure was from a cow or a horse,” Judge Grau said. “My ultimate ruling was that the case was … horse manure.”
“I cherished my time on the bench. So many of the people that helped me along the way – a lot of people in my career helped me tremendously. And I appreciate all of them,” he said.
Learn who else is an award recipient this year.
In the Footsteps: William Grau, Outstanding Public Interest Law Student
William Grau, center, with his parents, Kim Grau, a court reporter, and retired Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Gregory Grau, following William’s admissions ceremony in May 2019.
Judge Grau takes special pride in his son’s recognition this year, too.
William is the recipient of the Outstanding Public Interest U.W. Law Student award for 2020. Through its Public Interest Law Student awards, the State Bar Public Interest Law Section honors law students who demonstrate commitment to public interest, to volunteer work or activism in their community, and to helping others in their communities.
William, a 2019 grad, is honored for his pro bono work, having completed 277 hours, including as a manager of the law school's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, with the Ready to Rent program for Dane County, and at the Community Immigration Law Clinic in Madison.
“He helps his community because he believes in the importance of pro bono work,” says Megan Heneke, director of the law school’s Office of Career and Professional Development, who nominated Grau. “He is a dedicated leader and a responsive and effective communicator who has earned the respect of faculty, administration, and his peers at the law school.”
William recently completed the seven-month Officer Basic School for the U.S. Marine Corps in Virginia, and will soon attend the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island, to become a judge advocate. After, he will likely serve in Okinawa, Japan, according to his father.
“He has a passion for justice and service,” Judge Grau said. “He has a desire to make sure people are not denied their dignity, and he has the will, perseverance, and talent to do something about those beliefs. I’m sure he’s going to do the profession proud someday,” Judge Grau said.