Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Alan White feels his work on the bench has been valuable over the past decade — but at the same time, he knows that he isn’t irreplaceable.
With that in mind, White bid adieu to the courtroom Tuesday, presiding over one final OWI Treatment Court — a program he helped develop 3½ years ago — before officially beginning his retirement.
“It’s a little bit of a strange feeling because you’ve always been doing the best you can, but you also have to realize that someone else can come along and do as good of a job as you tried to do — no matter what you are in life,” White said in his office after the session.
White’s first full day of retirement will come 35 years to the day since he passed the Wisconsin State Bar Exam to begin his career in the law. After 23 years as a defense attorney, he was appointed to the Branch 3 judicial seat by Gov. Jim Doyle in 2006, and elected the following April to a six-year term.
“This job has played a big role in my life and how I’ve seen myself over the last 11 years,” said White, who was re-elected in 2013 after running unopposed.
“I took this job a lot later than normal—if there is a normal. I wasn’t a judge until I was 58 years old. And I came to it with a lot of life experience, which I think is helpful. Because the law is, to coin a phrase, not all about the law.”
The cases White has overseen include two cold-case murder trials and the case of the “Oneida Street Torture House.” He describes those as stressful, but said they just happened to land in the Branch 3 courtroom. One case that sticks in his memory involved the custody of child, which was eventually carried to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“The fears that I had, had all come about,” White said. “And that’s why I decided why I did, to try to lessen the impacts of what I was afraid could happen—did happen.”
In 2011, White ruled that a contract for the surrogate birth of a child, which required the mother carrying the boy to abdicate parental rights, could not be enforced by Wisconsin law at the time. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the contract was enforceable and the case was sent back to White’s court for new hearings.
“They said I was wrong and that’s it,” White said. “I’ve been wrong a lot.”
As an attorney, White argued before the state Supreme Court twice. The first came early in his career in 1985, when he argued for the relevance of the guardianship of a great-aunt, a case that resulted in new legislation opening the definition of legal guardianship in the state.
Although a person might try to approach a judge’s job with a strict black-and-white view of everything being clearly determined by the letter of the law, “life can get in the way,” White said.
One of the exceptions to the often zero-sum confrontation of court, White pointed out, is the OWI Treatment Court. He developed the program with a team including members of the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Probation and Parole, county and private health professionals.
“Right away I could tell his passion for the OWI court and for the clients,” said Kelly Zuelke, the initial program coordinator, who was brought into the team as an independent contractor. “You could tell that he and the rest of the team worked really hard to get that OWI court up and running — a lot of passion and blood, sweat and tears were put into that program before I arrived.”
In Tuesday morning’s OWI Treatment Court, White noticed more attendees than usual. The crowd included the program’s initial participant, who spent three months as the sole focus of the team and after graduating had returned to see White.
White said a formal party would be upstairs later in the afternoon, and that the people in the courtroom — OWI Treatment Court teammates and participants — were all welcome.
“You folks are very special to me, and it’s my party,” he said.
Known for incorporating maritime metaphors into his statements from the bench, White is planning a trip to Bayfield on the Lake Superior shoreline with his wife.
Moving onto the business of the day, White called up the first participant. He started by asking him about going to a Badgers game with his family. The second participant asked about White’s Bayfield trip, and then the two talked about the participant’s wife having a baby due in two weeks.
For a casual observer, it can seem slow and even tedious, Zuelke said. But she said for White to ask about clients’ children, their jobs and how they’re feeling about life make a world of difference for people before him in court, who often have burned bridges with their own family.
“I know you had a rough week,” White said as one woman took her place in front of the bench, her weekend plans having been ruined by an arrest.
“He was very good at finding the good and the positive,” Zuelke said of White’s system of ending with a bright side, even if it came at the end of telling someone they would have to go back to jail. “And there were times that we had to dig deep to find one positive thing that this client did during the week, but somehow he manages, amongst all of the negative happening in peoples’ lives, could always find encouragement for them.”
At the beginning of Tuesday’s session, current OWI Treatment Court Coordinator Connie Champion told White she had invited the past participants, but conflicts had come up.
“Well, the whole point of being here is to be out of here, right?” White said. “That’s where we want the end to be.”
Gov. Scott Walker has yet to appoint a new judge to fill White’s seat, though he has interviewed applicants with a panel and in one-on-one meetings. In the meantime, former Branch 1 Judge Daniel George, who gave up his seat in 2016, will return as a reserve judge to finish the week for White.
Whoever fills the seat by appointment or following the next election, White advises that a calm demeanor can go a long way to getting through a situation.
“Take your job seriously — because it is a very serious job ... but don’t take yourself too seriously because you’re the same person,” White said. “Don’t feel like you’ve become this much more intelligent person, because you haven’t.”