He describes himself as a one-time “outhouse lawyer” and was involved in the cases against the Chicago Seven. He taught Tommy Thompson politics, and as a judge he didn’t allow a chicken to testify.
“It was never boring,” said Judge Richard Wright. “I’d write a book, except they’d have to call it fiction, because they wouldn’t believe the things that come into court.”
After 46 years in law, Wright is hanging up his robe for the last time on Wednesday as Marquette County Circuit Court Judge.
“He is an irreplaceable icon,” said Ben Bult, who served 16 years as court commissioner for Marquette County, and on Thursday begins his term as judge.
“He has got a sense of humor that is just unbelievable,” Bult said of Wright. “There is no way I can begin to approach filling his shoes in just making (the work) an enjoyable experience.”
Wright, 71, has spent 18 years on the bench and is hoping to return there soon as a reserve — or substitute — judge.
“It’s going to be such a change,” he said. “I’ve been around this courthouse since 1974.”
But the path that led him there might have gone many different directions.
First, there was nuclear physics. As a physics undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison he looked into graduate studies in physics, but wasn’t thrilled at what the students were doing in the lab: spending all day looking at photographs.
“They were looking at fluorescent screens, photographs of ion chambers,” Wright said. “I said, let me know what happens; I’m doing something else.”
That something else was inspired by his college roommate: Tommy Thompson — who later became Wisconsin governor.
At that time, Wright was more active in politics than Thompson — both were on the conservative side of issues.
“He told me being my roommate he learned more about politics than he ever did taking political science courses,” Wright said.
Thompson’s influence on Wright, however, is obvious: Thompson had just been accepted into law school at the moment when Wright was contemplating finding a new path away from nuclear physics.
“I figured if he could, anyone could, so I went to law school,” Wright said with a laugh.
In physics you are either right or wrong. In law, he said, “there’s a lot of argument.” It didn’t take long for him to realize he was in the right place.
As a 1967 graduate, he became a patent attorney in Milwaukee, then shortly after, went to south Vietnam to try to talk the non-Communist people into joining with the U.S.
“Our project was to make contact with them and try to get them incorporated into our side of things,” Wright said. “It was basically funded by the CIA.”
In 1968, he joined the Army, serving a short time as a “grunt” stationed in Fort Dix.
Returning to law practice, he became involved in Conservative movement politics, working at a conservative think tank in Chicago. He wrote a book, “Who’s FBI,” published in 1974, that became required reading at the FBI. He also debated in an Illinois appeals court against throwing evidence out of court due to technicalities. He appeared in court against famed communist William Kunstler and wrote briefs that were used in the 1969 trial of the “Chicago Seven” — seven men charged with conspiracy, inciting to riot and other crimes relating to protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
“We argued some big-time cases,” Wright said.
Then another choice came up: a job offer to go to Washington, D.C. to work for another conservative think tank. At the same time, Thompson invited him to work in his law practice, in offices in Mauston and Oxford. Thompson was persuasive: Wright chose to return to his home state.
The outhouse lawyer
During the 1970s, Wright represented a citizen group concerned about the declaration of lands as flood ways — a declaration that might require them to move. The issue made it to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“We fought it and we prevailed,” Wright said.
He helped farmers retain rights over their drainage ditches, and fought for people who didn’t want indoor plumbing quite yet.
“I was the outhouse lawyer,” Wright said. “It was interesting stuff.”
Wright became Marquette County District Attorney in 1975, holding the position until 1982.
“It was nine months before I had my first felony complaint to file,” Wright said. “That just shows you how different it is (now). They file nine in a week sometimes.”
After serving six years as the county’s corporation counsel, he began his first term as judge in 1995.
Surprising to him, he said, was that every case was interesting.
“Never a dull moment” on the bench, Wright said.
The never-dull included a chicken in a bag that was carried by a woman into court as part of an assault case, and the time he officiated a wedding on a Saturday in Packwaukee only to preside over bond hearings for some members of the wedding party on Monday.
“That’s in the category of the crazy stuff,” Wright said. “It was never boring.”
As things have changed, and now that there is easy access via the Internet to court records, he’s concerned that now “we make criminals out of these people for life,” Wright said. “Some of them are; a lot of them aren’t. We don’t distinguish between the two.”
And he believes 17-year-olds should always be in adult court.
“You take into account their youth when you get to sentencing them,” just as judges do with 18- and 19-year-olds, he said.
He sees juvenile crimes tapering off. “I’m happy to see it,” Wright said.
All who work with Wright say the same thing.
“There’s no question that he will be missed,” Bult said. “His colorful personality is unmatched.”
Court reporter Jill Bartol has worked with Wright nearly the entire 18 months that Wright has been on the bench.
“That we’re really going to miss him is an understatement,” Bartol said. “It’s going to be quieter around here.”
They will miss his jokes — and some of the quirky things he does.
“He knows what they are, we’ve told him,” said Shari Rudolph, who has worked with Wright since 2007 as Marquette County Clerk of Courts.
Wright, she said, listens to those around him.
“He always treated us like we mattered,” Rudolph said. “He’s always been very good to my employees. The last few weeks have been definitely different around here knowing that he’s going to be gone.”
And he always gave people the benefit of the doubt. Wright was always fair, Bartol said.
“I don’t think he ever looked down on people,” Bartol said.
Wright plans to continue to work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters in Columbia County, where he also serves on the board of directors for the Central Wisconsin chapter.
“That’s a project that’s dear to my heart,” he said.
Wright also will continue to take care of his farm, which has been in his family for decades.
And hopefully have some time again on the bench as a substitute judge.
“We told him, we hope he comes back and visits often,” Rudolph said.
It’s plain to those around him: Wright really loved his job as judge.
“I think he’s probably going to have the hardest time out of all of us,” Bartol said.