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Crocker works crime cases up the legal ladder

Stephen Crocker (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

As a young attorney fresh out of law school in the early 1980s, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker wanted to work for the federal government prosecuting organized crime.

So when an opportunity to work with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division arose in 1984, Crocker jumped at it, only to be assigned to investigate wire-tapping cases.

“I was dying a slow death,” Crocker said.

But things turned around in 1986 when he transferred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago to join a drug task force and work on public corruption cases.

Crocker, 54, said many of the cases he prosecuted involved cocaine dealers who mimicked the popular “Miami Vice” culture at the time.

“Cocaine conspiracies,” Crocker said, “were a big deal in Chicago in the late ’80s.”

In 1990, Crocker stepped out of the federal spotlight and joined the Madison office of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP. But in 1992, he had a chance at a magistrate judgeship in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

Given that neither of the federal judges in Madison at the time had a penchant for criminal cases, Crocker said, his background proved valuable in landing the job.

Twenty years later, he said, he still relishes the variety of cases that come before him on the federal bench.

“I can’t imagine a job as a lawyer would be more diverse,” he said, “than what I’ve been able to do in this court.”

Wisconsin Law Journal: If you could develop one CLE course for credit, what would it be about?

Stephen Crocker: It would be fun to revive a CLE class I helped teach in Milwaukee with Bob Gegios and Nate Fishbach about civil procedure and court practices in Wisconsin’s federal courts. I referred to my gloss of Western District practices as ‘Welcome to the Freak Show.’ Some of the Milwaukee attorneys thought I was making this stuff up.

WLJ: What was your least favorite course in law school and why?

Crocker: Other than an externship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago and some editorial responsibilities, the entire third year was a miasma of random credit-accumulation. For instance, they urged us to take antitrust, but antitrust in the ’80s was a dead letter.

WLJ: What do you consider your biggest achievement to date and why?

Crocker: I’m proud to have been married 25 years to my charming and beautiful wife, Shirley. We managed to raise a smart, independent daughter committed to social justice. Everything else is secondary.

WLJ: What is the one luxury item you cannot live without?

Crocker: I’m notoriously cheap. The closest I come to splurging is bringing a box of doughnuts to work every Friday from Lane’s Bakery in Madison. We know each other so well I’ve performed a wedding and vow renewals for two of the clerks there.

WLJ: What do you miss most about your childhood?

Crocker: Through the haze of nostalgia, summers growing up in Madison were idyllic, like ‘Dandelion Wine’ by Ray Bradbury.

WLJ: What is the first concert you went to?

Crocker: Herman’s Hermits, Aug. 1, 1968, at the Orpheum on State Street. I was 10. My older brother lent me his Nehru jacket.

WLJ: If you could trade places with someone for a day, who would it be and why?

Crocker: A guitar shredder like Buck Dharma or Dave Mustaine, performing an arena concert with lasers, smoke machines and the Marshall Amps cranked to 11.

WLJ: What is your motto?

Crocker: ‘Don’t look for trouble. If trouble wants to find us, it will.’

WLJ: If you could be a superhero, who would it be and why?

Crocker: The Road Warrior, a post-apocalyptic antihero with messy hair, messy clothes, a cool car, a cool dog and a heart of gold. What more could you ask for?

WLJ: If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what career would you have chosen?

Crocker: Writing science fiction would have been at the top of the list if I had possessed the vision and the writing chops.

But given my skill set, more likely I would have ended up a park ranger with a Smokey Bear hat in the mountains out west.

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