The Third Branch
Judicial Commission director retires after 23 years
Jim Alexander was doing civil trial work in Madison in the summer of 1990 when a friend tipped him off that the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, the independent state agency that receives, investigates and prosecutes claims of misconduct or disability against Wisconsin judges and justices, was hiring a new director. He decided to apply. With no immediate response, he soon forgot about the job and happily engaged in his practice.
Then, within one whirlwind week, the Commission called him in, interviewed him, offered him the job and asked him to start immediately. It was an early introduction to the unpredictable pace of the Commission, which has jurisdiction over 800 state and municipal judges and court commissioners.
"Working with the various Commissions over the years has been very rewarding," said Alexander, who retired this summer after 23 years as director.
"These are volunteers who come in and make very difficult decisions in an effort to reach the right result."
The Commission has nine members. The Supreme Court appoints one judge from the Court of Appeals, one circuit court judge, and two lawyers; the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, appoints five non-lawyers. Each member may serve no more than two consecutive three-year terms.
Succeeding Alexander, 67, is Atty. Jeremiah C. Van Hecke, an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County who was the unanimous choice of the Commission (see separate story, below). Commission member Paul F. Reilly, a judge on the Court of Appeals, District II, led the search committee which was assisted by Department of Administration human resource specialists.
Alexander said Van Hecke's background would serve the Commission well.
"To be successful in this job, you need to have exposure to the court system," he said. "You need to have tried cases, to know what goes on in a courtroom, to know what goes on in law offices. You also need a thick skin and a sense of humor, and you need to be able to keep the right focus and not allow special interests to interfere with the ultimate goal, which is to protect the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."
He said the transition comes at a time when the Commission is facing significant challenges. The top two, he said, are updating Wisconsin's Code of Judicial Conduct to comport with the 2007 American Bar Association Model Code (Wisconsin's Code is currently based upon the 1990 Model Code) and addressing a need for funding and staff.
"We have a two-person office – the director and an assistant – and when you compare that to other states, where there are investigators and counsel on staff, you see how difficult it is, even with the ability to hire outside resources, to operate as we should. The good news is, we have established an energetic education program to teach the Code and proper ethical behavior – and that is really helping to prevent problems."
Racine County Circuit Court Judge Emily Mueller, who was Commission chair when Alexander announced his retirement, said Alexander would be difficult to replace.
"Jim is a person of the highest integrity," she said. "He has served in a very difficult role with honesty, fairness, courage and caring – and I think the judges and the people of Wisconsin owe him an enormous debt of gratitude."
In retirement, Alexander is looking forward to traveling with his wife, Jennifer, who recently retired from her position as president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce.
As he reached the end of his career at the Commission, Alexander said he felt overwhelming gratitude for the opportunity to work with talented staff and dedicated Judicial Commission members. Alexander said it was a privilege to work in a system that helps protect the integrity of the judicial system.
"The bottom line," he said, "is that judges in Wisconsin really endeavor to do a good job, and to adhere closely to both the letter and the spirit of the Code of Judicial Conduct. We are one of the leading states in the nation in this regard. When there are mistakes, they are most often minor and unintentional."