Dodge County judge reflects on lessons from the bench

(Source: Rochester Post-Bulletin, posted August 10, 2013, by Kay Fate)

  Mantorville - Judge Joseph Wieners is probably pretty confident in the judge who'll succeed him on the bench when he retires Monday from Dodge County District Court.

  "Well, I guess I'm going to take my own place, temporarily," he said. His successor, Judge Jodi Williamson, has been pegged to take the bench in Mantorville eventually, but in the meantime, Wieners will remain where he is.

Judge Joe Wieners

  It's been a good fit, he said, from the variety of cases he's seen to the work he's done with Dodge County's drug court. "Some people really enjoy the adversarial role that lawyers have," Wieners said. "I guess I like to step back and take a neutral position."

  He' been in neutral for 24 years, the first 21 in Olmsted County District Court. He's not easily frustrated by repeat offenders or troubling cases, he said, "because the law takes all of that into account through sentencing guidelines, to a certain extent. Maybe each individual judge has his own trigger mechanism about whether someone will change," Wieners said, "but at some point people earn a punitive approach. It might depend a little on the judge's mood that day; I'm sure if you track my cases, there might be outliers. We want to be consistent, but we're also human."

  There are "societal expectations of what we can accomplish" in the courts, he said, "but we're having the same discussions we had 35 years ago. There's always a new group of people coming through the system to test it. It's kind of an intractable problem."

  While many district courts find themselves short-handed, Wieners said his case load has been about what it should be. That said though, "is there enough time allotted to spend it the way you'd like, to give the help you'd optimally like to provide? Probably not."

  The drug court has provided help for hundreds of participants in the 10 years since its inception; but it's evolved over time, moving from a more juvenile focus to those with significant DUI charges. "I think it's partly a reflection of meth (use and arrests) declining," Wieners said, "so there are fewer potential applicants by that means. There's almost a 'drug of the decade' if you will. It seems like the big one now is heroin, but the one chemical that's a constant is alcohol. That's a wise thing to address."

  He speaks at length about the opportunities he's had in his interactions with those who have appeared before him. "I like the opportunity to try to address people's problems," Wieners said. "People are a lot more interesting than the law I apply. I get to work with just a terrific variety of human problems: it's been a terrific way to learn." The real lesson, he said, came from "a young fellow who I came down on pretty hard. Ultimately, he showed me that people have an incredible capacity to turn their lives around."

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