Retiring Sheboygan County Circuit Court Judge L. Edward Stengel, recipient of the State Bar’s Lifetime Jurist award, had a “tremendously positive impact on his local community,” say those who nominated him for the award. Photo: © Gary C. Klein – USA TODAY NETWORK
June 16, 2021 – A former small-town boy with a love of football and strong interest in politics, Sheboygan County Circuit Court Judge L. Edward Stengel Jr. is the recipient of the 2021 Lifetime Jurist award from the State Bar of Wisconsin.
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.
“When you’ve been a judge as long as I have, you get to know excellent judges through the years. I’m both surprised and honored to be among the recipients of this award,” Judge Stengel said.
Judge Stengel is one of two recipients this year of the Lifetime Jurist award from the State Bar Bench and Bar Committee. See the profile of Lifetime Jurist Dunn County Circuit Court Judge Rod Smeltzer.
Judge Stengel grew up in Illiopolis, a farming community in central Illinois between Springfield and Decatur. His high school graduating class of 1967 comprised of 24 students. “As a close friend reminded me, I was not in the top 10 percent of my graduating class,” he said with a grin.
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.
As a young boy, he lived with his parents on a farm raising beef cattle and a few crops. When he was in third grade, his parents turned the farm into a hobby farm, and his dad went to work for a local corporation. “I spent summers working on farms with my grandfather and uncles,” he said.
“In a small high school, you get to do everything,” he said – including sports, drama, and band. He played running back for his football team, then at half time joined the marching band on saxophone (“not very well,” he admitted).
Growing up in a farming community had its yearly rhythms. Summers were spent working on farms and showing animals. “Then in August, you play football, then move onto basketball, then baseball, and then it’s summer again.”
It was his grandmother who instilled in his family the importance of education. “She was a graduate of the University of Illinois,” he said. He inherited an interest in politics from his parents. “In the back of my mind, I always wanted to be a lawyer. Growing up in 1960s-70s, those were exciting times,” he said. “I always thought being a lawyer gave you the best vehicle for being involved in politics.”
Hoping to play football in college, he ended up at Notre Dame for his undergraduate education. There, “I was fortunate enough be a roommate with George Steil Jr. from Janesville. “His father, George Steil Sr., is to this day – in my opinion – an example of what an outstanding lawyer should be,” he said.
The Steil family encouraged Stengel’s interest in law – and he graduated from Marquette University Law School in 1975. His entry into law school was delayed to serve a year with the Active Army Reserve, serving six months on active duty “stateside.”
From Private Practice to Prosecutor to Judge
Initially out of law school, Stengel joined John Holden in private practice in insurance in Sheboygan County. “There was also some general practice and some criminal defense work,” he said. And in doing criminal defense, he got to know the local district attorney. “He was looking for someone for special prosecution work.”
In the end, Stengel’s work as a special prosecutor led the district attorney to endorse Stengel as his replacement. Gov. Martin Schreiber subsequently appointed Stengel to the position in 1977. He served four terms until 1985. Prosecutors, he realized, are in a good position to help defendants “get back on track.” The job was enjoyable “because I realized I was in the best position to take action to protect the community,” he said.
In 1985, a seat opened on Branch 1 of the Sheboygan County Circuit Court – and Stengel was encouraged to run. Six terms later, he is retiring at the end of July.
The transition to the bench “was more than I anticipated,” he admitted. What struck him was the “different viewpoint when you become a judge.” As a prosecutor, “you’re always looking to and speaking to the judge,” Judge Stengel said. “When you’re the judge, you’re looking to everyone,” including the families of the defendant and the victim. “You must be mindful to do as much good as you can.”
The view from the bench “brings home the realization that what you do has a very real effect on people’s lives. Hopefully by the things you say as well as what you do, you have a positive impact on everyone,” he said.
In this photo from January 2017, Judge L. Edward Stengel swears in District Attorney Joel Urmanski, as court reporter Judy Walters looks on.
‘A Tremendously Positive Impact’
During his time on the bench, Judge Stengel helped to organize Sheboygan County’s drug treatment court, where he was impressed with the commitment level of the participants. “That was an important learning experience for me,” he said. He wishes there were more resources supporting treatment courts. “It is an obvious choice that, when you can get the backing of the community, these participants can become self-supporting and be a valuable part of their family’s and children’s lives.”
Judge Stengel’s commitment to the county’s drug treatment court and other programs has had a “tremendously positive impact on his local community,” say those who nominated him for the award.
He has also made a strong impact on the profession and as a mentor to his colleagues on the bench, including Sheboygan County Judge Kent Hoffmann.
During his time as the county’s district attorney, Judge Stengel spoke to a high school group that included Judge Hoffmann. “To this day, I still remember when he spoke to our group,” Judge Hoffmann said. “I was so impressed that someone in his position would spend time with young kids to encourage them to enter the legal field. That meeting made an impression on me even to this day.” He took District Attorney Stengel’s advice, and went on to law school. “I have had a rewarding and successful career as both a staff public defender and an assistant district attorney.”
And in 2016, he was appointed to Branch 2. Judge Stengel was Judge Hoffmann’s mentor and go-to person when he has questions. “It is difficult to put into words how valuable Judge Stengel has been to me,” Judge Hoffmann said. “I am always amazed by the energy he brings to his job, even after three decades.”
What Makes a Judge Proud
Judge Stengel, during his career, served as chief just of the 4th Judicial District 2001-07, is past president of the Wisconsin Voluntary Trial Judges Association, past deputy chief of the Wisconsin Judicial Conference Executive Committee, and served on the Criminal Bench Book Committee.
“This has been a great county to be lawyer, district attorney, and judge in,” said Judge Stengel. “I’ve had great support from the county administrator, county board, and everyone else, and I’ve met so many interesting lawyers,” he said.
What makes Judge Stengel most proud are those occasions when he is recognized while out and about in the community. He encounters someone in a store, who then comes up and stops him. “They say, ‘Judge, I remember those things you said to me, and I try to live up to that. I appreciate that you believed in me and encouraged me to do better,’” he said. “It is important to listen to people first, then respond.”
That encouragement, he says, is vital. “When you have the opportunity to encourage someone to be as good as they can be, and they listen,” is what he is most proud of in his long judicial career.
His recommendations for the judiciary in Wisconsin: “Fill the seats of justice with good men and women who will not forget what human frailty is,” he said. “Judges have the opportunity to help people believe in themselves and that they can do better. And we want to give people the opportunity to do better.”
Having a Law Career
“Law is such a wonderful profession,” Judge Stengel said. “It provides so many opportunities. Most important, as lawyers, we have a responsibility – whether in private practice, as a prosecutor or government lawyer, or on the bench – you need to be involved and make sure our profession lives up to its ideals to help people.”
“It’s been a very worthwhile experience,” he said.
View Judge Stengel's award acceptance video on WisBar.org.