LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Retired Racine County Circuit Court Judge Gerald Ptacek continues to go beyond the bench to make Wisconsin courts better.
“I subscribe to the theory that if something’s working well and you can make it better, you ought to do that,” Ptacek said.
Ptacek was appointed by Gov. Tommy Thompson to the Racine County Circuit Court in 1988 and then elected to five successive terms in the years that followed. He served as a Racine County judge for nearly 30 years until his retirement in 2017.
During his time on the bench, Ptacek acted as chief judge of District II from 2002 to 2008 and chair of the Committee of Chief Judges from 2007 to 2008.
“Being a judge is more than just sitting on the bench and hearing cases,” Ptacek said. “I think you have an obligation to the community to do more.”
Ptacek often worked behind the scenes to improve the court system. A fellow retired Racine County Judge, Emily Mueller, who’s known Ptacek for 40 years, said his collaborative approach helped give rise to Racine’s first Treatment Court, better case-management protocols, the adoption of videoconferencing and other advances.
“He believed that we could do our best individual work as judges when supported by a court system that was efficient and responsive to the needs of all of the stakeholders,” Mueller said.
At the state level, Ptacek served on the CCAP Steering Committee and the Wisconsin Judicial Council. He was the chairman of a committee that resulted in the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s statewide e-filing program and also headed up the Judicial Council’s Appellate Procedure Committee.
The Office of Lawyer Regulation made use of Ptacek’s extensive experience structuring and leading committees before his retirement. In 2016, Ptacek accepted an appointment from the state Supreme Court to serve as chairman of the Lawyer Regulation System Procedures Review Committee.
The committee studied the lawyer-regulation process, its policies and its procedures. So far, the committee has filed nine petitions to make changes to the state Supreme Court rules governing lawyer regulation.
“In the course of this process, which had significant potential for contentiousness, Judge Ptacek communicated and developed a culture of openness, inclusion and respect,” said Keith Sellen, director of the Office of Lawyer Regulation. “The committee’s work under Judge Ptacek’s leadership enhanced the fairness, effectiveness and efficiency of the regulation system.”
Ptacek describes himself as being introverted, a trait that he said has been one of the biggest obstacles he has had to overcome in his career. But his ability to lead and listen without the need for recognition — a defining trait of an introvert — has improved courts and places around the state.
“Being on the bench as a judge, you need to be understanding and have a certain amount of compassion balanced with the responsibility that comes from being a judge and the responsibility that people have to follow the law,” Ptacek said.
Ptacek told Mueller it was a little strange to see himself getting an award for doing what he saw as his responsibility — a sentiment Mueller said sums up his leadership.
“It is satisfying to see that this very public honor and recognition is given to a man whose work for the court system has so often been done quietly and behind the scenes,” Mueller said.