Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award
The Bench and Bar Committee presents two awards: the Lifetime Jurist Achievement and Judge of the Year.
The Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award recognizes a jurist who was fair and impartial, demonstrated high ideals and personal character, and demonstrated outstanding long-term judicial service during their tenure on the bench.
“His 34 years on the bench have been exemplary.” This year’s Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award goes to Hon. L. Edward Stengel. Judge Stengel has served as the Circuit Court Judge of Branch 1 in Sheboygan County since his election in 1985. Other notable appointments include Chief Judge of the 4th Judicial District from August 2001 to April 2007, past President of the Wisconsin Voluntary Trial Judges Association, Past Deputy Chief and Executive Committee Member of the Wisconsin Judicial Conference. He’s also served on the Criminal Bench Book Committee. According to one of Judge Stengel’s nominators, it’s extraordinary to serve as a circuit court judge for more than 30 years and maintain that level of respect from the bar… “Judge Stengel’s respect among fellow members of the bench is second to none.”
Prior to being elected to the bench, Judge Stengel served as the Sheboygan County District Attorney from 1977 to 1985. Hon. Kent Hoffmann, of Sheboygan County Circuit Court Branch 2, still vividly remembers visiting the Sheboygan County District’s Office when he was just a high school student who was interested in possibly pursuing a legal profession. To this day, Judge Hoffman is impressed that Judge Stengel took the time – after hours no less – to meet with a group of young kids, answer their questions, and encourage them to pursue legal careers. And years later, after embarking on his own legal career, Hon. Hoffmann says, “It was such an honor to have Judge Stengel preside over my investiture ceremony. It is difficult to put into words how valuable Judge Stengel has been to me during my years on the bench.”
Words used by other nominators to describe Judge Stengel included “fair-minded, thoughtful, articulate, and bright”; a man of integrity who exudes passion to help others. Judge Stengel’s passion for the work is evident through his involvement with initiatives like the Sheboygan County Drug & Alcohol Treatment Court. Judge Stengel was closely involved in the planning and formation of the Program, and once it was operational, he presided over the court for two years. He oversaw several participants’ successful completion of the program and made such a positive impression that even after stepping down from his role as presiding judge, many participants requested he attend their graduation. Several of Judge Stengel’s nominators felt the Drug & Alcohol Treatment Court program wouldn’t exist without his involvement and dedication to getting the program off the ground.
Judge Stengel was also instrumental in establishing a secured entrance at the Sheboygan County Courthouse – a move which has created a safer environment for both members of the public and staff.
Judge Stengel will retire from the bench in July 2021 when his term ends. In a November 2020 interview with the Sheboygan Press, Judge Stengel reflected that his most memorable cases have been “the ones where  felt like [I] made a connection with someone and did something positive.” After reading through the stack of glowing nomination letters singing his praises, it seems that Judge Stengel definitely achieved this. For his numerous positive contributions, and unwavering commitment to fairness and justice, Judge Stengel is a deserving recipient of this year’s Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award.
Watch the presentation of the Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award
How many people do you know who ran a 600-acre dairy farm while simultaneously attending law school – not to mention, who also did so while finishing law school in 2.5 years instead of the standard 3?
Probably not many. With a work ethic that is “second to none,” Judge Rod Smeltzer, of Dunn County Circuit Court Branch 2, is the winner of this year’s Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award. A farmer by heritage and a “proud son of the Dunn County region,” Judge Smeltzer was first elected to the bench in 1997. All of his nominators unanimously agreed that Judge Smeltzer is the most grounded, sensible, and hardworking individual that they know. One colleague, who has known Judge Smeltzer for over 50 years, shared that even as Judge Smeltzer “hits the home stretch of his judicial career, he is working as hard as ever – coming in early and working late.”
One of the initiatives that Judge Smeltzer has worked hard on is building the Dunn County Criminal Justice Collaborating Council (CJCC) and establishing a treatment court to reduce recidivism and effect change. As a nominator shared, Judge Smeltzer understands that people in the criminal justice system with mental health issues are some of the highest risk individuals, but “they also represent the population we need to reach.” “He knew early on that you cannot punish mental health and addiction issues away.” Notably, the Council was also launched without the aid of state money.
Another issue Judge Smeltzer did not push away was the need for a “desperately needed third branch” in Dunn County to distribute and address the taxing caseload. “With dogged determination,” he worked tirelessly – much on his own time—to garner letters of support from the business community, legal community, social services, and law enforcement. He also testified before the legislature when they took up the judgeship bill – which successfully passed. The third branch will become operational in August 2021. While Judge Smeltzer won’t be able to enjoy working at a job he loves with a normal judge’s caseload, his efforts mean the community will be better served for years to come.
It’s difficult in a space like this, when you only have so many measured words, to fully convey the immeasurable impact of a person like Judge Smeltzer over a career that spans decades. However, while lengthy, it’s worthwhile to share one nominator’s elegant articulation of Judge Smeltzer’s unique effect on his community:
“Wisconsin is blessed with a wonderful court system and many fine judges. I believe what separates Judge Smeltzer from many of these fine individuals is his humility, empathy and human touch. I have prosecuted defendants from many different walks of life who have been charged with a vast array of crimes. Some of the most difficult crimes have been vehicular homicide cases where young, healthy victims were killed by a person they never met. During those cases in particular, I’ve been amazed by Judge Smeltzer’s ability to carefully balance the rights and needs of defendants as well as the victims and their families. It is clear that 24 years of sitting on the bench has not hardened him and these cases pull at his heart strings. At the end of these hearings, Judge Smeltzer comes down from the bench and shakes the hands of the victim’s family and expresses his condolences. He also expresses his sympathy to the defendant’s family as they are losing a loved one for some time as well. These personal touches by Judge Smeltzer are clearly significant to victims, and are just one of the many ways that Judge Smeltzer pours his heart and soul into his profession.”
Judge Smeltzer will retire in July 2021, but we highly suspect he’ll continue to live by his personal mantra to “treat everyone with respect, do everything with integrity, get results, and have fun.”
Watch the presentation of the Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award