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Heffernan remembered for personality, professionalism

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The separation of work and play is a delicate balance and one which was achieved by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan S. Heffernan, who died at age 86 on April 13.

A native of Frederic, Wis., Heffernan sat for more than three dec-ades on the Supreme Court starting in 1964 and serving as chief judge from 1983 until his retirement in 1995.

Although his 31-year tenure as a justice is the third longest in state history, it was his overall embrace of life which left a lasting impression on his peers.

“One of the things he taught me was that there is more to life than just what went on at the Capitol,” said former Justice Janine P. Geske, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993.

Geske, who resigned in 1998 and is a professor at Marquette University Law School, remembers Heffernan for his pleasant demeanor as much as for his scholarly approach to the law.

“He would often talk about taking his dogs up to fish on the Brule River and he really took advantage of his time away from court,” said Geske.

Justice Jon P. Wilcox accompanied Heffernan and his family on several occasions to a cabin near the river and both shared a passion for trout fishing and labradors.

“I used to have labs myself and we’d joke that when a case involving dogs came to the court, that they would be well taken care of,” said Wilcox, who first met Heffernan in 1979.

Wilcox was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1992 and will retire at the end of July.

Up until a few months ago, Wilcox routinely saw Heffernan at meetings for “The Academy,” an eclectic sampling of judges, law school professors, doctors and other professionals who gather routinely to discuss legal topics in the University of Wisconsin Union.

More than a decade removed from the bench, Heffernan kept his finger on the judicial pulse of the state. During his career, he helped develop some of the most significant changes to the system during his career.

In addition to championing civil liberties and women’s rights, Heffernan aided in the reorganization of the court system in 1978, which led to the creation of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

Heffernan also served on a commission in the late 1990s which analyzed campaign finance reform, a topic which has once again been the subject of discussion after the dramatic escalation of spending during the last three state elections.

“He would talk about the Supreme Court as an institution and was concerned that elections were having a corrosive effect on the court as an institution,” said Wilcox.

Geske noted that he longed for the time when “judicial elections didn’t involve these personal attacks that demeaned the position.”

Despite being occasionally outspoken, Heffernan was an incredible listener according to Geske. She noted that while the two often differed on their decisions, Heffernan was never judgmental.

“We weren’t philosophically aligned in many cases, but I always respected him and I believe he had that same respect for me,” said Geske. “I think a lot of the other justices were nervous as to where my position would be, but he was never one of them.”

Prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court, Heffernan served two years as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin — a position to which he was appointed to by President John F. Kennedy.

From 1959-62, Heffernan was deputy attorney general for Wisconsin and he served as an assistant district attorney in Sheboygan County from 1951-53. In between, he was an attorney at the Sheboygan firm, Buchen & Heffernan.

Heffernan graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1942 and delayed completion of his degree to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and three children, sons Michael and Thomas, and daughter Kathleen.

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