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  • May 04, 2022

    Judge of the Year: James Babler Helps Make Life Better for Children and Parents

    Barron County Circuit Court Judge James C. Babler is the recipient of the State Bar of Wisconsin's 2022 Judge of the Year award. Find out why he's made a significant impact on the lives of children in his county.

    Shannon Green

    Judge James Babler stands and smiles at the camera

    Judge James Babler, Barron County Circuit Court, is recipient of the 2022 Judge of the Year Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Bench and Bar Committee.

    May 4, 2022 – Called “one of the most efficient and forward-thinking judges in the state,” Judge James C. Babler is also the go-to person when there’s a problem with technology at Barron County Circuit Court. That means this three-judge, rural county courthouse stays at the cutting edge of technology.

    “I’m the tech guy at the courthouse. I am really interested in technology,” Judge Babler said.

    As a result, Barron County never missed a beat on the shift to a virtual courtroom in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “He put Barron County in a position to be a leader throughout this difficult time,” said Bayfield County Circuit Court Judge John Anderson.

    And being a whiz at technology isn’t the only reason people turn to him. “Many judges turn to him for advice, including me,” said Judge Anderson, especially for evidence-based court practices and treatment courts. “Judge Babler was a key figure in Barron County in implementing such strategies.”

    When a Justice Calls

    Judge Babler is the recipient of the Judge of the Year Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Bench and Bar Committee. 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.

    The State Bar celebrates this award and others annually at the Member Recognition Celebration (MRC), part of the State Bar’s Annual Meeting & Conference (June 15-16 this year). The 2022 MRC event will be held on June 16 at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva.

    Getting a call from a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice isn’t an everyday occurrence, let alone a call that you are recipient of an award. “It is really humbling,” Judge Babler said, “and obviously surprising.” Noting past recipients of the award “makes it even more humbling.”

    Judge James Babler stands with his bicycle

    Judge James Babler bikes to keep fit, including around Menomonie in May 2021.

    The Road to Barron County

    Raised in Portage, Judge Babler was inspired at a young age by a 1960s television show, The Defenders, to become a criminal defense lawyer. After he completed his undergraduate degree at U.W.-Madison in political science, he went to U.W. Law School, and never wavered from pursuing criminal law. “Halfway through my first semester, I decided to be a prosecutor,” he said.

    Graduating in 1979, his first job out of law school was as an assistant district attorney in Barron County. “I didn’t even know where it was,” Judge Babler admitted. When the district attorney who hired him became a judge a year later, he ran for the position – and lost.

    Shannon Green 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.

    But Barron County had become his new home, which shares similar demographics with Columbia County where he grew up. “I like the people, I like the area,” he said.

    For the next two years, he worked in adjacent Polk County, but never moved from Barron County – where he met his wife, Susan, and where they raised their two daughters. Two years later, he ran again. This time, he won – and was the county’s district attorney (DA) for 20 years.

    In the excitement of being the DA, he didn’t aspire to be a judge. “As a DA, I was often ‘in the know’ before anyone else. I liked seeing that justice was done,” he said. Making charging decisions as a DA gives you “a lot of power, and the job ought to be done by people who care about and know their community.”

    In 2003, the opportunity came to put his name in for Branch 1, when the judge retired early in the year. “I spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Judge Babler said. In the end, he didn’t want to be a judge any other place but Barron County. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”

    Ultimately, he said yes to Gov. Jim Doyle’s invitation. It was the right choice. He was appointed in March 2003 – and his fourth term begins in August 2022.

    Dealing with an Epidemic

    “I really like being judge,” he said, with the ability to impact the lives of those who come before him, “not just in criminal cases, but family law – including the placement of children, and in juvenile court.”

    That includes a new way of thinking about cases. “We are trauma-informed, system wide,” he said. “It’s a different way of handling cases than we did 40 years ago.”

    Given the methamphetamine epidemic currently rising across the state and county, a trauma-informed approach is significant.

    “We see many families ripped apart about because of meth,” Judge Babler said. “When children are placed outside of their homes, it is traumatic for the child.

    “It’s my job as judge to make sure the children are safe.” That means finding the path for parents and children to be reunited. “I’m an adoptive parent, and I feel strongly on how we treat children in court. I understand how trauma can affect children,” he said.

    Judge Babler was instrumental in getting a new type of advocate for children: the court-appointed special advocates (CASA).

    “Children need someone to be their advocate,” he said, so he helped to organize the program and asked the county to fund it. “With the meth epidemic, we have huge numbers of children out of their homes. We – a small rural county – had as many CHIPS cases as Dane County. It was overwhelming for everyone.”

    Coupled with their new Family Drug Treatment Court, getting families to be reunited is more likely. “If you can provide services, methods to keep that child in the home and keep them safe, they are better off. It’s very rewarding to help the parents become clean and sober and have their children returned.”

    The county’s Family Drug Treatment Court started two years ago, thanks to a federal grant. Judge Babler was instrumental in its creation and support, say those who nominated him for the award.

    Barron County was one of 11 counties across the U.S. who received a grant for this type of court. “It’s a big deal that we got it,” he said.

    They set out to prove that the court could work in a rural county. “There’s a lot of work to it,” he said, “but we have a lot of successful cases.”

    The court includes frequent contact with the justice system. “We meet every two weeks with our participants. Currently, we have between 10 and 12 families in the program.”

    The investment includes time as well as emotion. “They have their ups and downs, and we encourage them. I like to say that we are their cheerleader – but we also hold them accountable. The reward is that their children are returned to them.”

    The court’s success “isn’t flashy news, but it really makes life better for the children,” he said.

    Judge James Babler and his wife Susan stand in front of a waterfall in Iceland

    Judge James Babler, with his wife, Susan, traveled to Iceland in July 2021. Here they stand in front of the famous Gullfoss waterfall.

    Prepared for the Pandemic by Coincidence

    At the Barron County Justice Center, it is the Branch 1 judge who you turn to when the technology stops working. “I’m really interested in it,” Judge Babler said. It is out of that interest that Judge Babler has served 15 years on the CCAP Steering Committee.

    And in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic required a fast shift to virtual courtrooms, the only item the courthouse needed was a Zoom license. “We have a modern courthouse. We’ve always kept our technology current,” Judge Babler said.

    By coincidence, a new video system was installed just three weeks before the orders to move to virtual. The new system had replaced one that could not handle Zoom. “Our screens were ready – simply because we had just updated them,” he said.

    In addition, “we stayed open during COVID,” Judge Babler said. “We always allowed people to come into the courthouse – unless they were sick.” It’s something they are proud of. “Some of the most important things in life happen in court – so the system needs to keep running.”

    Looking Ahead

    Meanwhile, he is active with his church, and works out several days per week both to keep fit and relieve stress. He’s also relearning German, a language he took up in college and subsequently never used. “I’m using the Babel app,” he said.

    At age 66, Judge Babler isn’t ready for retirement. “I have no plans,” he said. “Lord willing, I will serve out the next six years.”

    Join in the Celebration at the Annual Meeting & Conference in June in Lake Geneva

    Judge Babler receives his award at the Member Recognition Celebration at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva.

    Join the celebration at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, 2022. The celebration takes place at the State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference. Conference registration is not required to attend.

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