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Wisconsin judge, 89, aims to ‘get it done right’ in the courtroom

Picture of Judge Gary Scholsstein. Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

Chuck Rupnow

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

ALMA, Wis. — It didn't matter what their offenses were, he treated the defendants the same.

It was a typical day before Judge Gary Schlosstein, who's held that vocation almost six decades.

“This is why ...” Schlosstein routinely starts his dialogue with defendants who appear before him in the Buffalo County courtroom.

After a short session Monday, July 10, with defendants, appearing on minor traffic and ordinance violation cases, the 89-year-old judge said he loves serving from the bench.

“I enjoy making the person who comes in the courtroom, no matter what they have done, feel that I'm listening and that we are working with them to get them on the right path; to get it done right,” said Schlosstein, who may end his judicial career next year after 32 years as a circuit judge and 28 as a reserve judge.

“Then I might quit, unless I'm still having fun,” he said, followed by a laugh.

Schlosstein, Buffalo County's historian and an avid collector, never thought of being a judge in his early years. He enlisted in the Army in 1945 at age 17 and served as a military court clerk for two years. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and graduated from its law school.

“When I started college, I wasn't interested in law as a vocation, but I was interested in the law enforcement side of things at that time,” he said, referencing his military career.

Over time, and recalling the accounts of his father, attorney Belmont Schlosstein, Gary Schlosstein admits “sort of an evolving change” toward law as a career.

“My father had a law practice in Cochrane that I could join at that time and it seemed like a good starting point,” he said. “Originally, I thought I could use my law degree to be in the FBI, but that lost some of its allure as I went along.”

When the district attorney at the time resigned and the elder Schlosstein was not interested in applying for the position, Gary Schlosstein did and was appointed by the governor.

Schlosstein served 4½  years before being appointed as judge, replacing G.L. Pattison. In 1958, he was elected judge. He was continually re-elected and subsequent judges Dane Morey and James Duvall were never challenged in elections.

The county's first contested judicial race in 60 years is expected next year with Duvall's retirement and two people already having announced candidacy for the position.

“I had hard discussions with my successors,” Schlosstein said. “What I mentioned was that I really wanted them to keep things as personalized as possible.

“You want the defendant to know that he is just not a cog in the wheel as this machine is going by.”

In a legislative move in 1974, the judgeships of Pepin and Buffalo counties were merged.

Buffalo County Clerk of Courts Roselle Schlosser said she’s “had the true privilege” of working with Schlosstein for 34 years, beginning as his deputy register in probate/juvenile court and as clerk of courts since 1995.

“He once told me that our justice system isn't perfect, but it is one of the best he has seen,” Schlosser said. “He has always given great support to all court staff and upheld the justice system with his respected performance on the bench.”

When asked why he continued with reserve judge roles after retiring at age 62, Schlosstein said: “This was like a long-term marriage and after I was in 32 years, I couldn't just divorce myself from it.”

Schlosstein says his “biggest contribution to the professional judiciary” has been the evolution of training programs for judges, serving on several judicial committees and faculties, even co-authoring a judicial bench book.

“When I started out as a little boy of only 30 as a judge, I was surrounded by judges who were all very senior to me,” he said. "I looked at it as a career and that's what subsequently it has become for so many who got in the judiciary.

“Today, there are a lot of judges under age 40 who are very efficient, dedicated, very good and well-trained judges,” Schlosstein added. “I like to think the training that we started those many years ago has something to do with that.”

The annual Wisconsin Judicial College, which focuses on the tools and techniques of judging, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“The development of the college and other aspects of improving the judiciary has been very meaningful to me,” Schlosstein said.

After humbly speaking of his contributions and efforts to improving the court system, he focused back on the countless defendants he's encountered over the years.

He recalled situations when he was district attorney, a time before public defenders, that he and the sheriff would routinely meet with the defendant in a jail cell to discuss the case.

“We'd sit down and talk the case over, and I'd say what I think he should be charged with and what should happen as far as a penalty,” Schlosstein said. “After we'd talk about it a bit, the defendant would usually say 'sounds good to me,' and we'd walk across to find the judge and say the defendant is ready to plead guilty. I'd make a recommendation and the judge would give him a talking to and it was settled.”

Even though things have changed in the court system, he’s maintained the same perspective.

“What I want them to take away when they leave the courtroom is that I talked with them personally, that I knew enough about them to know that what I was doing was good,” he emphasized. “I want them to know why I'm doing this, what I'm asking them to do.”