Retired Dane County Judge Richard Niess has been at the center of many of Wisconsin’s most closely watched court cases in the last decade.
He ruled in the state’s so-called lame-duck lawsuit, Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to delay calling a special election in 2018, the fight over the release of Attorney General Brad Schimel’s videos for training law-enforcement officers, the challenge to Wisconsin’s voter ID law and the date for Walker’s recall election.
Niess said he learned the importance of moving these types of cases along quickly, without sacrificing quality.
“What I would do is set up a structure I hoped was aggressive, and then I would try to get the rest of my docket in shape, such that when I actually had to sit down and think about the case, I had cleared the deck of other things,” Niess said. “Then it became a 24/7 focus. You can’t help it. It takes over your life.”
Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Niess to the Dane County Circuit Court in 2004. Niess won re-election in 2017 and served until his retirement in July. Before his appointment, he had spent 26 years in a trial practice and as a mediator — experience he said helped him greatly when he was becoming a judge.
“I learned the exercise of judgement,” Niess said. “Just because you have an argument doesn’t mean you should make the argument. Just because you believe a lawyer is being unreasonable doesn’t mean that they don’t have a viewpoint that you should consider.”
Niess’ understanding of people and the law made him an informal leader of the Dane County judiciary and someone judges could rely on for advice. Dane County Judge Rhonda Lanford said Niess’ collegiality, leadership and humor are missed.
Niess encourages Dane County’s new class of judges to do the same.
“The most important thing for these judges to keep in mind is that they are trustees of rule of law,” Niess said. “They are fiduciaries to the public for whom they serve.”