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Magistrate judge working his way through retirement

Judge Aaron Goodstein (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

There barely was enough time to congratulate U.S. Magistrate Judge Aaron Goodstein on his retirement before he was back on the bench.

He officially retired June 30, 2010, but was on recall status just a day later, resuming a full caseload in the Milwaukee division of the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

A quirk of the federal system lets magistrates go on recall status, instead of the perhaps better known semi-retired senior status, almost immediately after retirement.

“If you want to continue and they have work for you, it’s a marriage,” said Goodstein, who began his legal career in 1967 as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Myron Gordon.

By 1979, Goodstein was appointed magistrate, fulfilling an interest in judicial work that was sparked in law school when he heard traffic ticket and other cases as a student court justice.

His title changed around 1990 from magistrate to magistrate judge.

“Many people did not understand what a magistrate was,” he said. “It’s similar to the bankruptcy judges, who used to be known as referees, as if they wore striped shirts and blew whistles.”

His work has remained largely the same during 33 years on the bench. Goodstein handles about 100 cases at any time, balancing a combination of civil cases, which magistrates handle from start to finish, and criminal cases, in which he oversees evidentiary hearings or pleas.

“My guiding principle is to just try to do the right thing,” Goodstein said. “You get a feel for what that is in each case. You have to be guided by the law, of course. But you also have to exhibit lots of patience and make everybody feel that they’re being heard.

Wisconsin Law Journal: What is the best part of being a judge?
Aaron Goodstein:
Helping litigants resolve their disputes and facing legal challenges, those are the best parts. Not wearing the robe because sometimes it’s warm under there. But you have to wear the robe. That’s a judge’s uniform.

WLJ: What do you consider your biggest achievement so far? Why?
I think just having served in this position for over 30 years, that’s my biggest achievement. That I’ve been able to do it without getting bored or stale or jaded, and enjoying it, still coming to work each day with a smile on my face and looking forward to it. That’s a great accomplishment.

WLJ: What object in your office means the most to you? Why?
I have a bobblehead of me as a judge in my robe. It’s a great likeness. And why it means so much is because it was given to me by my staff when I went on retirement. Sure, it’s cute and it’s funny. But, to me, it really represents the close relationship I’ve tried to develop with the people on my staff and the mutual respect we have for each other. It’s a recognition that I can’t do the job myself, but we do it together.

WLJ: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I think there are two words: one is ‘however’ and another is ‘notwithstanding.’ They just show that each case is individual, and the law must be applied to each case. But, by the nature of each case, you say, ‘This is the law, however, in this case …’ or ‘Notwithstanding, in this case …’ I use those a lot because it’s the nature of the law.

WLJ: What was your most useful law school course? Why?
I thought all my courses were useful because I think I gained something from each one, whether it was contracts or administrative law or constitutional law. I got something from each of them. I put them all to use.

WLJ: What was your least favorite course in law school? Why?
That was tax. I suppose because it’s just, I mean, the tax code and the regulations then and today. It’s like going into the jungle. There’s so many entanglements. Today, even when I have a tax case and look up those regs, one leads to another. I didn’t like it in law school, and I don’t like it today.

WLJ: If you could develop one CLE course for credit, what would it be about?
It would be some course that would be helping the decider. I’m the decider. And it’s too often when briefs are written, they’re not aimed at me. They’re not there to assist me in making a decision. They’re good at discussing the law or making an argument, but they could do a better job of explaining it to me. Make sure the judge understands.

WLJ: What word in the English language do you wish you had invented?
It’s two words: case settled. I don’t know about invented, but I like hearing that.

WLJ: What is your greatest extravagance?
Neckties. My wife says I have way too many. I never used to like wearing them. It wasn’t until I became a lawyer that I wore them. But I said, ‘This is part of the uniform. So, if I have to wear neckties, they’re going to be nice.’ So, if I bought a shirt or a sport jacket, I bought two neckties.

WLJ: Finish this sentence: Happiness is …
Happiness is grandchildren. I’ll tell ya, there’s nothing better.

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