Iowa County Circuit Judge Bill Dyke is no stranger to the public spotlight.
Before taking the bench in 1997, he served as mayor of Madison, ran for Wisconsin governor and was a U.S. vice-presidential candidate.
But as the lone judge working in an old courthouse with minimal security, some suggest Dyke, 80, is too accessible to the public.
“My concern is always security,” said Dodgeville attorney Suzanne Edwards, of the Law Office of Suzanne Edwards. “It’s virtually nil and I think the judge is too vulnerable with the location of the court and his chambers.”
Dyke’s courtroom and office are at the end of a second floor hallway, secluded from other court offices. The isolation doesn’t provide much protection for Dyke, who was re-elected in 2010, Clerk of Courts Lia Gust said.
“In a lot of courthouses that we’ve seen,” Gust said, “the judge is back with his judicial assistant and not as easily accessible as our judge is.”
Accessibility became more of a concern two years ago, Gust said, after an attorney was physically assaulted by a client in a conference room at the courthouse. She declined to give more details of the encounter.
“That was probably the tipping point for us,” she said, “and when we started the push towards thinking about security a little more.”
After the assault, Gust said, the court implemented security measures such as locking six of the seven courthouse entrances.
Dyke said he wasn’t concerned about the public’s accessibility to his office, however. In fact, he said he liked that it kept him connected.
“I like having an open door,” he said. “It is part of being in a small town.”
The Iowa County Courthouse is in Dodgeville, which has less than 5,000 residents.
Dyke said he hasn’t had any run-ins with the public and didn’t want to be sheltered.
It is routine, he said, for people to drop by his office for an informal chat or with a legal question.
A woman recently stopped by his office unannounced, he said, for help with some divorce paperwork. Dyke was able to contact an attorney in the case, track down the necessary documents and resolve the issue, he said.
“It’s very common to have people pop in,” he said. “I don’t have the anonymity that goes with large counties so my presence is visible and it’s a good thing.”
Dyke acknowledged the need to consider security upgrades, but said he also wanted to preserve the history of the building, the oldest operating courthouse in the state.
Both Dyke’s chambers and his courtroom are inside the original 1859 courthouse structure, but many of the other court offices are in a connected expansion that cost $2.3 million in 1995.
“It’s obvious that the old building is obsolete and there’s only a certain amount of money that can be spent on it until you are reaching a point that the cost is such that you can’t keep up,” Dyke said. “But I think we’re a few years off from that.”
One of the driving factors for a new building, beyond security concerns, Dyke said, would be the need for a second judge.
But that time hasn’t come, he said. Iowa County’s judicial need is 1.3, based on the National Center for State Courts 2007 weighted caseload study.
Few of the approximately 4,000 cases that are filed each year with the court are delegated to court commissioners. Dyke said he liked to see cases through from start to finish.
Despite his age, Dyke has shown no signs of slowing down, Edwards said. Cases continue to efficiently move through his court, she said.
“He is there a lot,” Edwards said. “I think he really loves his job and that keeps him young at heart.”
With Dyke handling most everything that comes through the door, Gust said the court had an obligation to look out for its lone judge, however.
Case volume slowly is increasing, she said, which means more traffic in the courthouse and a greater need to develop security, even if the judge doesn’t want it.
“We’re a pretty small community and he likes to be accessible if people want to get a hold of him,” Gust said. “But on the other hand, you want to protect him because in a one-judge county, he’s it.”