Retiring Dunn County Circuit Court Judge Rod Smeltzer is a recipient of the State Bar’s Lifetime Jurist award. Find out how this former Wisconsin dairy farmer ended up serving 24 years on the bench.
June 2, 2021 – It is a purely dairy state tale: a former Wisconsin dairy farmer is the recipient of the 2021 Lifetime Jurist award from the State Bar of Wisconsin.
The story of Dunn County Circuit Court Judge Rod W. Smeltzer, who retires at the end of July, is about a boy growing up on a dairy farm with a love for history and how governments are formed, who made his way to law school – while working as a partner in his family’s farm – and ended up as a judge in his home county.
Judge Smeltzer’s work ethic, learned on a 110-cow dairy farm, translated into a legal career that is being honored by his peers and colleagues.
The award, from the State Bar Bench and Bar Committee, 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.
“This is an award that was not on my radar,” he said. “I do accept this award with all humility.”
Judge Smeltzer is one of two recipients this year of the Lifetime Jurist award from the State Bar Bench and Bar Committee. Look for a profile of Lifetime Jurist Sheboygan County Circuit Court Judge L. Edward Stengel in the June 16, 2021, issue of InsideTrack.
Judge Rod Smeltzer stands behind his bench with his four granddaughters in this November 2018 photo. The granddaughters are, from left: Josie, Allie, Katie, and Tessa.
Farm to Bench
Judge Smeltzer retires July 31, 2021, after 24 years with Dunn County’s Branch 2. His path began on his family’s Dunn County dairy farm.
“I didn’t plan on being a judge,” he said. “It just happened.”
Judge Smeltzer grew up on the Rusk Prairie dairy farm in the Town of Red Cedar. As a teenager, he loved to go to the library to read books. “I was always fascinated with early U.S. history – the formation of the Constitution and the Articles of Confederation.” Those who did so were lawyers, he noted, “and they gave great speeches,” he said. “I was thinking of being a lawyer back then, but it just took me a long time to get there.”
He went to the University of Minnesota for a double major in political science and accounting. After, he did various jobs, including working at an auto dealership. He also worked at the technical college in Eau Claire. He subsequently earned a master’s degree in history and then returned to the technical college for a job writing a curriculum for training town treasurers.
After that, he returned home, and joined the farm as a partner with his parents and brother-in-law. “In any given year, we had around 300-350 head of cattle,” he said. Through both ownership and renting, they worked around 500 acres of land. “It was a good sized operation.”
Judge Smeltzer’s wife, Trudy, played softball in the 1980s. Her coach was William C. Stewart Jr., now a retired Dunn County judge, who at the time was a law student at William Mitchell Law School in St. Paul.
Stewart gave Smeltzer a call one day. “Your wife wanted me to call you and tell you that you should go to law school,” Stewart told him.
“I didn’t think she wanted me to go to law school,” Judge Smeltzer recalls. “We had 2 kids. But she was great during those busy years.” Trudy worked as an emergency room nurse at Luther Hospital in Eau Claire while attending to all the family’s needs.
He still had his partnership in the farm. “My mom said ‘you have to keep this farm running’ during law school. That’s the deal I made with them. It seemed like a fair trade.”
Judge Rod Smeltzer, who retires at the end of July, posed for this photo just after his election to Dunn County’s Branch 2 in 1997.
Smeltzer joined the law school as a member of the Class of 1989 – graduating in 2 ½ years, a half year after Stewart.
Both Stewart and Smeltzer returned to Dunn County both as prosecutors in the district attorney’s office. Judge Smeltzer maintained his partnership in the dairy farm, working the farm during those first years out of law school.
In 1996, the idea of one of them running for the bench came up between them. “I had never thought about it,” Judge Smeltzer said, but he ran for Branch 2, against a sitting judge. “I was lucky enough to win the seat.” A year later, Judge Stewart joined him on the bench in Dunn County – and they served together until Judge Stewart’s retirement in 2013.
“We had lunch together almost every day,” Judge Smeltzer said. “We talked about everything we had going on, discussing ideas and issues, supporting each other. It was a fun relationship.”
Judge James Peterson, who hired Smeltzer in the Dunn County District Attorney’s office in 1989, joined Smeltzer on the bench following Stewart’s retirement. Judge Smeltzer noted how much he enjoyed and appreciated working with Peterson over the years. “I know the Dunn County Circuit will be in good hands with Judge Peterson guiding the ship,” said Judge Smeltzer.
What You Learn on the Farm
Working on a dairy farm, he learned to show up every day and make the effort required to keep it going. “It doesn’t matter if I’m a judge, a prosecutor, or a dairy farmer: you’ve got to show up and be engaged,” he said. The lesson: “Through hard work, things are possible.”
This work ethic translated well to the rigorous requirements of law school. “In running a dairy farm, you’re managing crisis situations and prioritizing your work,” Judge Smeltzer said. “It conditions you to keep organized, and to recognize when you need help, and to reach out and team build.”
It translated to the courthouse as well. “I reach out to staff, to empower and challenge them – because we are all part of the team,” he said. “That’s an important concept: if we all do an excellent job, it makes the court system successful – and the result is that we are providing service to the public in an efficient and effective fashion.”
Judge Rod Smeltzer, in this photo from 2013, sits on his family’s 1935 Farmall F-20. The tractor, which he used as a young boy in bailing hay, is currently being restored by a family member.
Efficient Service to the Public
Those who nominated Judge Smeltzer for the award point out his commitment to constantly improving the court process. One of those improvements that Judge Smeltzer says he is particularly proud of is the county’s drug treatment court. “When you experience so many cases involving drug addiction and mental health issues, you do pick up a recognition of how to deal with them,” Judge Smeltzer said.
The treatment court allows defendants to receive help with their issues above a term in jail or prison. As part of the treatment court team, Judge Smeltzer is strongly committed to the outcome for participants, and lets them know it. “When someone applies to the treatment court, we have to believe they have the ability to succeed in this program. They can tell if the judge doesn’t believe in them – so it is of vital importance that they know we strongly believe in them.”
He is now participating in family treatment court, which addresses parental substance use that results in children receiving inadequate care. When participants fail, that failure stays with him, even off the bench. “That’s a burden that’s hard to shake. But they have to want it, they need to work at it to make it happen.”
In working with them and seeing their hard work, “I’ve really seen some miracles in how people have changed their lives,” he said.
Reflections from the Bench
Sitting on a judicial bench lends an interesting perspective – witness to many tragedies and a few high points in the lives of those who come before him. It leaves an impression – or more.
“All the humanity that comes through the courtroom door,” said Judge Smeltzer, “they leave a piece of themselves with me. You always want them to do well.”
He provides a consistent empathy, he said, and senses the prevalent anger in a divorce proceeding. “But the anger gets in the way of them being able to move forward,” he said. “I always feel it. I want to take that burden away from them, hoping they can resolve it, so they can move on.”
In this photo from spring 1997, Rod Smeltzer stands next to the borrowed farm truck he used in his first campaign. “We parked it in various spots around town,” he said.
Dunn County Branch 3
On Aug. 1, 2021, the Dunn County court will expand to three branches. That was hard-fought goal for Judge Smeltzer, achieved just as he retires. “I worked on it about 15 years,” he said. Working on it was “an interesting experience” that involved many ups and downs. “This came to fruition with a collective effort after many trips to the legislature” as well as testifying before the state’s Joint Finance Committee.
Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by org sgreen wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.
Regardless of this success, “it’s been a tough year,” considering the pandemic. He is proud of how his staff handled the switch to utilizing remote appearances and implementing safety protocols. “We were used to handling a high case load in difficult situations, so we used that experience to adjust to this different method of holding hearings,” Judge Smeltzer said.
The pandemic taught many things. “We learned how to operate Zoom, how to run a jury trial via Zoom, and how to mark exhibits and have witnesses appearing via video. It was a skill set we all had to learn,” he said.
Going forward past the pandemic, Judge Smeltzer believes that technology will continue as an option for hearings. “We have to be careful in how we implement video hearings, so we do it the right way,” he said. It is important that people feel connected with their government and the courts, and that they feel they are heard and that people are listening. “This is something we need to make sure we balance out,” he said.
As of Aug. 1, he begins the next phase of his career – retirement. “I haven’t thought about it,” Judge Smeltzer said. “I want to focus on the job until I walk out the door.”
After, he will join Trudy in visiting their two children and four granddaughters.
Advice to Future Judges
His advice includes four points:
- Maintain integrity in everything you do.
- Treat everyone you encounter with respect.
- Work hard – and get results.
- Have some fun doing it!
Also – don’t take yourself too seriously. “You’ve got to have humility, because you’ve got a lot of authority,” he said. “But take the job very seriously.”
Something to keep in mind: “We serve the public and we serve the attorneys, and we serve each other, our staff, and the other departments. Make it work, and things will go well.”
And another bit of advice: “I always say ‘I love Mondays. This is the best day of the week.’ Why? If we don’t like Mondays, it is going to be a long week.”
Celebrate 18 Legal Super Stars
The State Bar of Wisconsin is celebrating 18 members of the legal community who make a difference – by mentoring others, offering their services in pro bono work, and leading the way in bettering the practice of law in Wisconsin – in 2020 and over the length of their careers.
Find out more about these award recipients: