Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Ralph Ramirez is the 2021 Judge of the Year.
May 19, 2021 – At the Waukesha County Courthouse, a special “code” brings staff and attorneys quickly to Judge Ralph Ramirez’s courtroom.
About once a month, he announces a “Code 10-0 in Branch 3,” in the spirit of police 10-codes, via email, text messages, and posted signs. “It’s my doughnut code,” he says with a laugh. Judge Ramirez purchases doughnuts as a treat for courthouse staff, and announces it to staff with this code. “For a mere $15, I am the most popular guy in the courthouse,” he says.
Doughnuts aside, his colleagues in other courtrooms also seek him out for advice and mentoring – and the doughnuts, advice, and mentoring are all parts of what Judge Ramirez says is of vital importance when you are a judge: how you treat those around you and those who appear before you. “It’s the small things that matter,” he says.
That philosophy governs his courtroom – whether in person or virtual – every day, and is a reason why Judge Ramirez is recipient of the Judge of the Year Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Bench and Bar Committee.
Judge Ralph Ramirez loves to fish on his property near Eagle River. When courtrooms in Wisconsin went virtual in 2020, he held court out of the Eagle River home, taking a quick lunch break following morning hearings.
The Road to Judge of the Year
The award recognizes an outstanding circuit court judge who has improved the judicial system during the past year by his or her leadership in advancing the quality of justice, judicial education, or innovative programs.
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.
The award is a “high point” for Judge Ramirez. “It is really an honor to have my peers say thank you – this means a lot to me.”
The grandson of migrant workers on his mother’s side, Judge Ramirez’s mother and her family traveled from South Texas to Wisconsin as migrant workers on vegetable farms in southeast Wisconsin, before moving to permanently Racine for factory jobs. His father, from Oklahoma, moved to Wisconsin prior to World War II, returning after fighting in the war to work in a factory in Waukesha. His parents met in Racine – and they moved to Waukesha to raise a family when they were married.
Judge Ramirez discovered his interest in law while in high school. “We had a ‘Crime in the Law’ class,” which sparked his interest. In college, he was a political science major, and law was always “in the back of my mind.”
Choosing U.W. Law School, Judge Ramirez never wavered from his interest in criminal law. “For me, criminal law was what lawyers did,” he said. The summer between his 2L and 3L years, he worked as an intern in Price County and ended up as second chair in a homicide trial. “That was an amazing experience.”
That trial, held long before the internet, was the county’s entertainment. “It was huge for Price County. People came to watch the trial in person. You could hear gasps from the older ladies” during testimony, he said.
The experience also sparked his love for northern Wisconsin – he now has a vacation home near Eagle River.
Judge Ralph Ramirez fell in love with Wisconsin’s north woods as a law student. Here he is snowshoeing in the Chequamegon National Forest near Eagle River in 2020.
After two years as assistant district attorney in Eau Claire following his graduation in 1984, Judge Ramirez took a pay cut in 1986 to work as assistant district attorney for Waukesha County. “I wanted to come back home,” he said. He and his wife, Renee, raised three children in Waukesha. They now live in Milwaukee, Oconomowoc, and Durham, North Carolina. The Ramirezes are also proud of their two young grandchildren, ages 5 and 7.
In the 1990s, Ramirez decided to run for judge, and with encouragement of friends and family, ran for a seat left open in 1999 after the retirement of Judge Roger Murphy. Campaigning “was an interesting experience. You put yourself out there, and you have to work super hard,” he said. He was humbled by the hard work his friends put in to help his campaign.
Winning the judicial race, which involved a primary, was one of his proudest moments, he said.
Also, in winning the election, he became the first Latino circuit court judge elected without first being appointed by a governor – Judge Ness Flores is Wisconsin’s first Latino judge was appointed in Waukesha County in 1978 and elected in 1979, and Jess Martinez Jr. was appointed and served a two-year term 1983-85, also in Waukesha County.
Choosing to become a judge was the right move for him. “Sometimes the job is difficult, sometimes very enjoyable, and sometimes a grind, but I really enjoy my job,” Judge Ramirez said.
Judge Ralph Ramirez with his wife, Renee Ramirez, in Eagle River.
The Art and Science of the Bench
His philosophy? There is both art and science to being a judge. “The science is about statutes and the law. The art is calendaring, how you treat people, how you conduct yourself, and how you maintain control in your courtroom – not as an authoritarian, but proper, appropriate, and considerate control,” Judge Ramirez said. “The art of the courtroom is very important.”
In terms of the art of the courtroom, Judge Ramirez’s outlook is simple: it’s all about you, not about him. “When you come to my court, whether you’re a litigant or attorney, and even if it’s the most mundane matter I’ve handled 20 times that day, I am looking at you and I am listening to what you say,” he said. “It is that important.”
It is also important, he says, to mentor new judges. “I remember the mentoring I got. And I’m only as good as the other judges around me, so I will help them do the best job they can,” Ramirez says.
View Judge Ramirez's award acceptance video on WisBar.org.