Dock Talk: Judge Yackel (Pt.1)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 | by Ben Dryden |


The Dock Talk is a DrydenWire segment where we sit down with an area person for a Q-&-A chat at our favorite coffeehouse The Dock Coffee in Spooner, WI. Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with Sawyer County Judge, John Yackel. The following is part 1 of our conversation. Part 2 will be published next Tuesday.

Q: What kind of coffee are you drinking today? 

I drink Cameron's Coffee Highlander Grog.  I buy the beans and grind them myself every day.

Q: Is coffee a regular part of your day?  How do you usually take your coffee?

Every morning, I get up at 5:30 am and drink it black. My wife likes creamer and I take a cup to her in bed every morning. I usually do not drink coffee after the morning hours but will if offered.

Q: You have only recently become the Sawyer County Judge, but you are from the Hayward area, correct? 

My mother's family (Landgraf) is from Sawyer County.  My roots date back to 1883.  My father was from Minnesota.  My parents married at the Congregational Church in Hayward in 1969 and he began his law practice in Hayward in 1971 after graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School.  I was born in 1974.  I lived in the house on the corner of 5th and Main St.  The one with the stone fence.  It is across the street from the Sheriff's Department and the Courthouse.  That is where I grew up.  As a kid, I walked to church, school and rode my bike to all places within the City of Hayward.  To this day I can go for a walk and tell you who used to live in every house throughout the old neighborhood. 

I attended K-5th Grade at the Elementary School and 6-8th Grade at the Middle School.  I attended High School in Hayward from 1988 until 1992.  My main sport was football and was on the Varsity team as a starting Defensive End my Junior and Senior years.  In the summers I worked at IGA as a grocery bagger in 1988.  I worked on my grandfather's cranberry marsh just south of town for 4 years, and I worked at the Hayward Go-Kart Track from 1994 until 1996. 

In 1991, when I was a junior, my Dad, Norman Yackel, was appointed Sawyer County Circuit Judge.  That was quite an experience being a high schooler and having your Dad as the local judge.  My best friend's Dad was the High School Principal.  Fortunately, we were all basically good kids and did not raise too much hell.  Those were the days where the worst thing you could do was go to a party and drink some beer.  Unfortunately, times have drastically changed!  All in all, Hayward was an awesome place to grow up.  I have so many fond memories and am so proud that my son can say that he is from Hayward Wisconsin.  I am so proud to be from this community and to have my roots go so far back.   This is my home and I will fight forever to keep this a good place for people to raise their family!

Q: Where did you go and what did you do after you graduated High School in ’92? 

I attended the University of Minnesota from 1992-1996 and majored in Political Science and minored in History.  I was a member of the Chi Psi Fraternity (The Lodge) and graduated with Honors.  Despite my success at the University, I could never quite leave Hayward.  When I started college, that was the first time in my life I realized how connected I was to this community.  I confess I was homesick and often traveled back to Hayward on the weekends. 

Before graduation, I contemplated numerous career opportunities.  I explored the ROTC but they were turning people away because of the relatively peaceful world in 1993 and 1994.  I wanted to be an astronaut or a fighter pilot but my poor eyesight and hatred of mathematics eliminated those possibilities.  I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer but always tried to find something else.  When other opportunities dried up, all that remained was the law.  So in 1996 upon graduation from college, I was accepted to Marquette University Law School beginning the fall of 1997.  

During the 15 months between college and Law School, I lived with my parents in Hayward and worked on the Durphee Lake Cranberry Marsh.  What a time I had.  That year was spent reconnecting with Sawyer County.  During those months, I knew I wanted to come back someday and raise a family. In those days, the worst I was exposed to was going to a tavern and having a few beers.  Sometimes more than a few.  Heroin and Methamphetamine were only "Big City" problems far away in another world. 

After my time in limbo, I attended Marquette University Law School from 1997 until 2000.  I was sworn in as a lawyer in May of 2000.  I clerked at the Wisconsin Court of Appeals from 2000 until 2002 in Wausau.  Shortly after I moved to Wausau, I met my wife Traci.  Traci had two sons, Jake (7) and Mitchel (3).  Traci and I fell in love and were engaged.  We were married in 2003.  Following my clerkship, I went into private practice in the Wausau area.  I handled both civil and criminal cases and gained invaluable experience at the law firm of Wendorff, Ellison and David.  During my time in Wausau, I raised my family and became immersed in local issues.  However, every weekend in the summer, I brought my family the 160 miles to Hayward.  During those years my step-sons learned to love the lakes and everything Sawyer County has to offer.  My wife always knew that if we ever moved, she knew we would be moving north. 

In August 2012, my life changed.  I applied for and was appointed Lincoln County Circuit Court Judge for Branch II.  At almost the same time, Traci and I found out we were pregnant.  It was quite an amazing and stressful time.  During my time in Lincoln County, I found out that I made a pretty good judge.  In a County where no one knew me, I earned their respect and their support.  Unfortunately, I was up for an election before I could develop any significant track record and I was challenged by a local hometown attorney.  In April 2013, I was defeated after getting almost 49% of the vote.  Eight days later my son was born.  I remember holding him on the night he was born and saying to myself, "the greatest gift we can give to him is for him to be able to say 'I'm Luke Yackel and I'm from Hayward Wisconsin.'" 

On July 3, 2013, I resigned as Lincoln County Judge and moved my wife and new-born son to Hayward.  On July 8, 2013, I began my new job as Sawyer County Assistant District Attorney but had every intention of running for Judge in 2015 and to take the office previously held by my father until his retirement in 2009.  On August 21, 2014, my father passed away.  One month later I announced my candidacy for Sawyer County Circuit Court Judge.  In 2015, I ran unopposed, won the election and took office as the Sawyer County Judge on August 1, 2015. 

Q: I had recently seen a press release about a ranking system for Judges and their caseload.  If I recall, your name was at the top of the list as the “busiest” judge in Wisconsin.  Have you seen this report? 

Yes, I have seen the report and I am not surprised with the results.  All Judges were required to participate in the study to ensure its accuracy.

Q: With the highest caseload per Judge in the state mean? 

All Judges are given a ranking based on which County they are from.  That ranking considers the number of cases being filed in each county every year and also considers the number of Judges each County currently has.  For example, there are three Judges in Barron County and one Judge in Sawyer.  Barron has far more cases filed every year than Sawyer.  If Barron only had one Judge the caseload would be probably too much for one Judge to handle.  But they have three so the caseload is divided by three.  Each Judge in Barron has less of a caseload that the one Judge in Sawyer.  In other words, there is no other Judge in the State of Wisconsin who deals with as many cases as I do. 

Q: How does that impact Sawyer county?

In a poor County with limited resources, this can have a compounding effect.  My calendar is full so it is difficult to find any dates within the next two months to have a hearing.  The number of days it takes to get a case to trial increases and if someone is in custody, the number of days they are in custody before the case is resolved increases and this can have severe constitutional ramifications.  In addition, a victim may want their day in court, but it is delayed because of the clogged calendar.  My work ethic and efficient approach as a judge is keeping the system afloat.  I process these cases as fast as I can.  But the system can only go so fast.  What ends up happening is that I do not get to spend as much time with a Defendant to determine really what punishment or rehabilitation is needed.  I usually follow plea agreements made between the State and the Defendant because if I didn't, the entire system could collapse.  If a Defense Attorneys knew I was not going to follow a plea agreement, then there would be no point in the defense trying to settle a case.  Every case would be set for trial and the system would grind to a halt. 

Q: How does this impact you as the Judge?

I am almost always in court which means that I do not have the same luxury as some Judges do, and that is to thoroughly research every issue of law that comes before me.  I try to keep up to speed on the changing nature of the law, and I draw on my past experience greatly.  But I wish that I could have more time to look into an issue of law a little deeper.  I try very hard to make the right decision based on common sense, what the law is and what I think justice demands.  I draw upon my everyday experiences and from the fact that I am from this community.  There is little difference between me and most of the people who appear before me.  They are no better or no worse than I am.  Most try hard but are flawed, just like me.  I always try to remember that every day.

Q: What is the answer to this?

This is a more difficult question.  I take pride that I am processing the largest calendar of any Judge in the State and I will continue to do so for as long as I am in this position.  However, I do have concerns about the growing drug epidemic that is facing Sawyer County and all of Wisconsin.  Different places have different drugs of choice.  Two years ago I would have said Heroin was a big concern.  Heroin use has increased dramatically, but Meth has exploded as well.  These two substances are the driving force behind most of the crime in Sawyer County.  This has put a tremendous strain on the legal system.  If the rise of Heroin and Meth continues, and I do not see any signs that it won't, I am afraid the rural Counties with the least resources will be the first to collapse.  I read everywhere that State and Federal representatives are talking to people about raising the awareness of the Drug Epidemic.  They want to give law enforcement more tools to combat the spread and consumption of these poisons.  But I never hear anyone talk about providing the judiciary the tools it needs to process these cases.  If the DA's offices are understaffed and the court systems are understaffed (and both are), the end result is going to be more plea bargains in an attempt to keep the system afloat.  Many people throughout the years have said, "there are too many plea bargains.  They only got a slap on the wrist."  I respond to those comments by simply saying "You get what you pay for."  If the public sentiment is fewer plea deals and more jury trials, then they must provide the resources for more Judges, more prosecutors and for more defense attorneys.  If no one believes the system is running as efficiently as it can, come and sit in on court on a Tuesday beginning at 8 am.  I have invited Legislators, County Leaders, the press and your average citizens to simply come in and watch the volume of cases we deal with on a regular basis.  And if you walk by the courtroom and it is dark, it very well may be that I am sitting in another court in another County.   I am regularly assigned to Washburn, Rusk, Bayfield and Ashland Counties.

Q: You are one Judge, in a poor county, limited resources, in the middle of a drug epidemic, and who has the highest caseload in the State. Is this sustainable in the future?

In my view, the citizens of Sawyer County elected me to handle the court system as efficiently as possible and they have placed their trust in my judgment.  I will continue to work hard to keep that trust and to make decisions that are just.  But I believe it is also my role to let the people of Sawyer County know if there are dangers on the horizon.  The drug epidemic is one of those dangers.  Most people who do not have contact with the legal system don't see it.  But I do, and I have the difficult task of alerting people to the problems we face.  I think another Judge in Sawyer County would alleviate a lot of the stress on the system.  It certainly is not the answer to everything.  However, it will give more time and opportunity to put energies and resources into possible treatment options (like a drug court) and to find cost-saving alternatives. 

Q:  What has to happen in order for Sawyer County to have another Judge?

Earlier this year I was alerted to the fact that I am the busiest Judge in Wisconsin.  I was informed that a Bill would be submitted to expand the number of Circuit Judges in the State.  Since Sawyer was at the top of the list, I informed the Sawyer County Board of the requirements to get another Judge.  1.) Sawyer County would have to support a resolution supporting another Judge and further resolve to provide adequate space to house an additional Judge; 2.) The State Legislature would have to pass a Bill calling for the creation of additional Branches in specific Counties.  After a tumultuous debate, Sawyer County bravely and rightly committed itself to adding another Judge.  Unfortunately, I have now been informed "unofficially" that the judiciary is not going to ask for additional Judges during this budget cycle, but rather is going to ask for a pay raise for every Judge in Wisconsin. 

Let me be clear, Sawyer County needs another Judge far greater than its current Judge needs a pay raise.  Unless the State Legislature can increase the number of hours in a day, a pay raise for all Judges will do nothing to address the overwhelming issues facing rural Wisconsin.  At the risk of sounding overdramatic, whether Sawyer County continues to be a great place to raise a family hangs in the balance.  Unfortunately, there are many Judges who work in Counties that have abundant resources and who are not as busy as I am who want pay raises.  I have spoken to legislators, members of Congress and other judges urging them to pay attention to the dramatically growing drug epidemic.  It's everywhere, but the larger more wealthy communities will weather the storm far longer than smaller poorer places.  If nothing is done, rural Wisconsin will suffer the greatest.  What is clear to me is what we always knew here in Sawyer County.  All the power in this State resides south of Highway 29.  I am frustrated because unless they submit the Bill for additional Judges, I feel as if the Judiciary and the Legislature are turning their backs to the plight of places like Sawyer County. 


Part 2 of our chat with Judge Yackel will be published next Tuesday, November 21, 2017.


You May Also Be Interested In: