Judge Donald Zuidmulder shows his pride for the Green Bay Packers in the lining of his jacket. His father, Dave Zuidmulder, played for the Packers (1929-31) and Judge Zuidmulder served more than a decade on the Packers’ board of directors. Photo: Harmann Studios, Inc.
April 19, 2017 – Sometime when you see him, ask Brown County Circuit Court Judge Donald Zuidmulder about his Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Ring, and about the lining of one of his jackets.
For Judge Zuidmulder, those items are about connections – to his father, to Brown County, to the past. He has deep roots in Brown County, including an uncle who was sheriff, and a father who, in addition to being a firefighter and fire chief, played for the Green Bay Packers.
His father, who passed away in 1978, is the one person always on his mind. His father is the person who, in the end, he wants to be able to look proudly in the eye after every judicial decision he makes.
“If I have to look away, if I have some reservation that what I did was not fair and just, I can’t let that happen," Judge Zuidmulder said. “My father was the greatest man that I ever knew, and all I ever hoped to accomplish was to be like him.”
Judge Zuidmulder is the recipient of the 2017 Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Bench and Bar Committee.
The Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award recognizes a jurist who has served more than one full term as a circuit court judge and has demonstrated outstanding, long-term judicial service during his or her years as a sitting judge.
Deep Roots in Brown County
His family has been in Brown County since the 1850s. “I have my grandfather’s Civil War discharge papers in my chambers,” Judge Zuidmulder said.
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.
His father, Dave Zuidmulder, played for the Green Bay Packers (1929-31) as a halfback and punter. He remembers meeting his father’s teammates as a child. “It was a great experience as a kid to listen to those guys talk,” he said.
His connection with the Packers continues today – he served from 2000 to 2012 on the organization’s board of directors and is an emeritus director now. He also enjoys showing off his Super Bowl ring and his jacket lined in Packers fabric – items he obtained through his position on the Packers’ board.
The Boy Who Asked Questions
In fifth grade, he didn’t know what a lawyer was, but he still remembers his teacher talking about it. “She told me that I talked a lot, that I asked a lot of questions, so she told me I was going to be a natural lawyer,” he said.
Those comments inspired him to attend U.W. Law School, graduating in 1968. The next month, he started working as an assistant attorney general in Madison, then in 1970, he ran for his first elected position as district attorney in Brown County. “My ambition was to be a congressman,” he said.
My father was the greatest man that I ever knew, and all I ever hoped to accomplish was to be anything like him.
He was elected as D.A. in 1970 and again in 1972 – then ran for Congress in 1974. “I lost in the primary,” he said – and that ended his ambitions for Congress. “So, I went into private practice for 22 years,” he said, working as a partner in several small firms between 1975 and 1997.
He worked as a municipal and town attorney and as a trial lawyer in criminal cases. “I was fortunate to get many referrals by word-of-mouth reputation,” he said. His work took him to many different counties. “The people I represented – I believed in their cause. And I was trying to make things right for them,” Judge Zuidmulder said.
Judge Zuidmulder served as chief judge of Wisconsin’s 8th Judicial District from 2009 to 2015. Photo: Harmann Studios, Inc.
Kind of a Shock
In 1997, a rare opportunity arose to create an open seat: the retirement of Brown County Judge Richard G. Greenwood. Judge Zuidmulder ran for the position – and, to his surprise, ran unopposed. He is still humbled and proud of the fact that no other lawyer chose to run against him. “I talked to them afterward. They said I was always a man of my word, that I was fair, that I would do a really good job.”
As he took the bench, he had another surprise: he wasn’t assigned to criminal cases, but to family, juvenile, and children’s cases. Those areas – previously unexplored by him – widened his perspective. “I saw a whole portion of society I didn’t realize existed,” including the closed juvenile cases, he said. “It was kind of a shock.”
Four Treatment Courts
In 2009, Judge Zuidmulder approached the Brown County Board to tell them he was starting a special drug treatment court.
“I told them I was a volunteer, that I’m taking on the extra work, and I didn’t care if they approved money for it or not,” he said. “I said, I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
With Judge Zuidmulder’s guidance, the county now has four treatment courts, with about 100 participants at a time, to help those struggling with drug addiction, a separate court for those addicted to heroin, for veterans with issues relating to their service, and for those suffering from mental health issues. He is working also to establish an OWI court.
Treatment courts have a ripple effect, and makes life in our community so much better for everybody
He is proud of the support the treatment courts receive from Brown County. The court system ends up saving the county money, but that isn’t the biggest benefit to Judge Zuidmulder. “The criminal justice system should be involved in interventions that successfully change behavior.” When time in jail or prison fails to change a person’s behavior, “we have to be creative and use other tools. Because otherwise, we’re wasting public resources.”
The treatment courts work, helping people to become contributing members of the community. “There’s less crime, more people paying their taxes and taking care of their kids. It has a ripple effect, and it makes life in our community so much better for everybody,” Judge Zuidmulder said.
Currently, he serves as judge in the mental health court. He sees participants who required multiple police interventions, who require none after their experience in the court. “It’s so rewarding. The patrol officers are delighted with this because they have more time for other calls,” he said.
Honor the Award Winners June 15 in Wisconsin Dells
Join the State Bar in honoring Judge Donald Zuidmulder and recipients of additional awards at the Member Recognition Celebration at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 15, at the State Bar 2017 Annual Meeting & Conference.
The event is free, and all State Bar members and their friends and families are invited to celebrate these individuals at the Glacier Canyon Lodge, part of the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort in Wisconsin Dells.
For more information, visit WisBar.org.
Looking Forward by Using History
When Judge Zuidmulder took the bench in 1997, he wanted to increase the number of social and networking opportunities outside the courtroom for members of the local bar. Now, each September, they have the Call of the Roll – something that occurred in the past before the circuit season began each fall. It’s a formal gathering that welcomes new lawyers and memorializes those who passed away in the previous year. “We have a reception where we meet the new lawyers, tell old war stories and lies,” he said. “We get to know each other outside the rather adversarial courtroom environment that we’re in.”
His proudest achievement is that “the people of this county put me in this position” as circuit court judge. “In the republic, there is no one who exercises more power over your person and your property than a judge. And in a system where the people elect you, they are saying they trust your character and judgment in the most important things they have – their personal freedom and their property. To me, that’s the highest honor anybody could get.”
Following a panel discussion at the State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference in Green Bay in June 2016, Judge Zuidmulder shows his Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Ring – something he received while serving on the team’s board of directors.
Warmth and a Sense of Humor
Judge Zuidmulder served as chief judge of Wisconsin’s 8th Judicial District from 2009 to 2015, a position he found enjoyable. “The other chiefs are leaders in their areas, thoughtful men and women, and just a delight to be with,” he said.
He also served two five-year terms on the Criminal Jury Instruction Committee. “Of all the things you can do as a judge, this was one of the highlights. You get to dig deep into the intellectual basis of the jury instructions with nine other colleagues from all over the state,” he said.
Judge Zuidmulder is well known for his warmth and sense of humor, says Vilas County Judge Neal Nielsen. “He is a man who cares deeply for the future of our judicial system, and most importantly, has the utmost respect and concern for the citizens he serves.”
Judge Zuidmulder “loves the law, and he loves people,” says U.S. District Judge William Griesbach. “I have a great deal of respect for the way in which he practices law.”
Understanding the Law, Understanding Yourself
“I like to tell people, I’ve always tried to understand the law and my own limitations,” Judge Zuidmulder said.
It’s good advice for all lawyers. “The law has to be a calling. If the calling is you want to do what’s right, to help people, then you are going to be successful. If it’s about making money, about prestige, you’re going to wreck yourself, because that’s not where the satisfaction from practicing law comes, in my opinion,” he said.
As far as the future of the profession, it is a bright one, because of the talent of those who are coming up behind him. His judicial colleagues in Brown County are “all exceptional, and delightful colleagues to work with,” he said. “We’re so fortunate to have them.”
At age 74, he has four more years left in his current term. He’s not sure if he will run again – four years is a long time. But if the election were this year, “you know damn well I’d run again,” he said with a laugh.
Join Us at the Annual Meeting & Conference in June in Wisconsin Dells
Don’t miss in-depth CLE programming and a chance to network with judges, lawyers, legal staff, and other legal professionals at the 2017 Annual Meeting & Conference, June 15-16, at Glacier Canyon Lodge at the Wilderness, Wisconsin Dells.
Register now to earn up to 13 CLE and 4 EPR credits from dozens of CLE sessions, hear two plenary speakers, visit the Legal Expo, cheer on your colleagues at the Member Recognition Celebration, join the networking luncheons, celebrate at the Presidential Swearing-in Ceremony, and enjoy the All-Conference Western BBQ.
Save more than 10 percent when you register by the early-bird deadline of May 15. New to AMC? First-time attendees save an additional $100 off the registration fee.
Find out more.