April 19, 2023 – Five years into taking the bench, Judge Richard “Rick” Radcliffe has found his stride as a community consensus builder in Monroe County Circuit Court.
It is what makes his county strong: that the community leaders are all on the same page when it comes to serving the residents of the county.
“It goes back to communication and relationship-building,” said Judge Radcliffe, which is one of the things he says Monroe County does best.
Judge Radcliffe 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 14-16. The 2023 MRC event will be held on June 15 at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.
27 Years in Private Practice
“I haven’t gone very far” – geographically – Judge Radcliffe says. He grew up in Black River Falls, where his father Robert “Bob” Radcliffe, served as a district attorney before becoming a judge in Jackson County for 18 years.
His father was “definitely an influence” on Judge Radcliffe’s decision to pursue law as a career. Of his family, his sister is a doctor and two brothers are veterinarians – and he became a lawyer. “We were expected to make something of our lives” beyond college, he said.
A graduate in 1990 of U.W. Law School, Judge Radcliffe started his practice in Tomah, where he stayed with the same firm in the same location for 27 years. In rural western Wisconsin, his practice included a lot of different areas, although in the later years he concentrated on civil cases.
“I had a lot of fantastic role models” that helped him throughout his career, including his father. “I appreciate my father’s contribution – I have a lot of respect for what he did in Jackson County.”
When the opportunity came to consider the bench, “it felt like the right thing to do,” Judge Radcliffe said. “And it turned out to be my best decision – after getting married to Carol.”
The Radcliffe family in July 2022, from left: stepson Alex; stepdaughter Amelia; his wife, Carol; Judge Radcliffe; son Ian; and daughter Sierra.
A Commitment to Family and Balance
As a judge, he had to learn a new work-life balance. “Family is important. I’m a husband and father first, a judge second,” Judge Radcliffe said. His four children are now in their 20s, pursuing their own careers. Ten years ago, he married Carol. “She’s very instrumental in all of my success.”
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.
Accustomed to the flexibility of being a community lawyer, it took serious consideration before he threw his hat into the ring when his predecessor, Judge David Rice, announced his retirement in Monroe County in 2017.
A judge’s work, he said, is a different commitment than a practicing lawyer. “There’s less freedom in your schedule – it’s a significant change from being your own boss,” he said.
Most judges have very little free time. “It’s demanding in that regard,” he said. Committed to making it work for his family, Judge Radcliffe and his wife agreed to something they’d never done before: take two-week vacations once a year. “We’ve since been all over the world. That’s been wonderful,” he said.
“My wife has helped me keep that balance between professional and personal life. It’s been more difficult than I thought it was going to be – I’m fortunate to have her to keep me grounded,” Judge Radcliffe said.
Changing the Approach
Judge Radcliffe was appointed by Gov. Scott Walker in December 2017. Shortly after, he was elected for his first full term starting in August 2018.
He learned very quickly that the justice system “is riddled with addiction and mental health issues. About 75% of the criminal justice system’s cases involve addiction or mental health problems,” he said.
“Our society doesn’t address these issues in any meaningful way, leaving it to the criminal justice system to handle.”
That’s “a huge systemic problem,” Judge Radcliffe said. “The traditional approach of how we treat criminals is not effective in treating people with these issues.”
Realizing this, in 2019 he spearheaded the effort to establish a drug treatment court in Monroe County. The treatment court, he says “changes the entire approach of the justice system.”
“We had, at any time, hundreds of people going through the system being treated as criminals because they were addicted,” he said. The main cause: methamphetamine. “Meth is widely available, highly addictive, and incredibly destructive to the brain and way of life.”
The usual methods of jail, prison, and probation don’t work, he said, and creates an “us versus them” mentality.
Judge Richard Radcliffe, right, poses for this photo in February 2022 with members of the Monroe County Drug Treatment Court on accepting two grants for the program.
Passion for Learning
Those who work with Judge Radcliffe know about his passion for learning and being prepared. “He’s known for being incredibly prepared,” said Teri Novotny Antonneau, his court reporter who is one of several who nominated him for the award. That preparation translated to a quick transition to virtual court at the start of the COVID pandemic.
“He handles his role in the treatment court by continually educating himself about addiction and trauma, treating every participant with compassion and understanding,” Novotny Antonneau wrote.
On joining the bench, Judge Radcliffe has enthusiastically accepted opportunities to learn more about areas that affect his cases directly, including evidence from digital sources like cell phones and the science of DNA evidence in criminal cases. “We started a special task force in our county” that addresses the issue of DNA collection.
Judge Radcliffe was one of a few judges recently selected to learn more about the Fourth Amendment and digital evidence, such as from cell phones, computers, and the cloud. He also participated in a national training session at the National Computer Forensics Institute in Alabama – information he’s brought back to his colleagues. “I like learning about difficult things, because it really gives you a better understanding of these issues,” he said. “I’ve been really fortunate to be able to share it with the judges I work with.”
Judge Richard Radcliffe with his wife, Carol Radcliffe, in Italy in September 2018.
A Community in Collaboration for More Effective Treatment
Treatment courts are “all about developing relationships,” a collaborative effort among all community stakeholders – not just judges and attorneys, but also law enforcement, and treatment and heath care providers.
At the beginning, “we decided to make it the best we could,” Judge Radcliffe said, using the latest and best practices. “We are so fortunate to be able to do that with the support of our community, and with the help of the state and federal governments,” he said. “Once people understand what we’re trying to do, they often agree to help,” which is an essential part of the process.
The treatment court officially began in January 2020, and met with its first participants in early March 2020 – just in time for the pandemic shutdown, Judge Radcliffe said. “We immediately were forced into virtual treatment court,” which is less effective. “We were back in person by August with safeguards in place.”
The treatment court, currently operating with a five-year grant, now has 20 participants. “We’re as full as you can be,” Judge Radcliffe said.
And the results?
“We take people who are incarcerated or facing prison, in poor health, with significant chronic damage to their brain, and help them change their behavior and start a new life. When that happens, you see people change from being very unsure, chronically anxious into individuals who are happy and self-confident and want to make up for their earlier life,” Judge Radcliffe said.
Working as the judge for treatment court taught him many lessons.
“I’ve become much more aware of how people who suffer from addiction and mental health issues see the world,” he said. “I’ve learned there are very few bad people – there are just a lot of people who have bad things happen to them and who are suffering.”
“When you approach cases that way, it becomes easier and important to listen to and understand their story,” Judge Radcliffe said.
It works because “everybody involved is on the same page to make the system better,” he said. The experience “has made me proud of our county and staff.”
He is in debt, he says, to everyone who has helped him along the way, with the treatment court and with his career as a judge. Such a feeling is key to understanding his reaction to receiving the award: “Every judge I work with in my district is deserving of this award,” Judge Radcliffe said. “This award should really go to all those who have helped me become a better judge.” And the list is a long one, he said.
Join in the Celebration at the Annual Meeting & Conference in June in Milwaukee
Judge Rick Radcliffe receives his award at the Member Recognition Celebration at the historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee.
Join the celebration at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 15, 2022. The celebration takes place at the
State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference. Conference registration is not required to attend.
Find out about other award recipients to be honored at the celebration.