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Trial judge follows winding road to success

Ask Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Mark Gempeler why he got into law and he’ll say it’s tied to the era in which he came of age.The District 3 chief judge said having gone to college and law school during “the turbulent ’60s and ’70s,” was a significant factor in his decision to study law.“I was one of the throng who felt a law degree could help me make a change,” Gempeler, 51, said. “I was kind of motivated by the social consciousness that arose.” Although he wanted to be involved in law, Gempeler said he was not sure where the desire would take him. Nearly 26 years ago, he began working as an assistant district attorney in Waukesha.“I was enthused with being where the action was,” Gempeler said. “The trial arena was exhilarating. … I really enjoyed being a young prosecutor.”From there, he sampled life as a defense attorney in private practice. After a couple of years, he decided practicing litigation was more fun than focusing on the business aspects of running a law office. At that point, he became an assistant U.S. attorney. Gempeler also served as Waukesha County corporation counsel before Gov. Anthony Earl appointed him to the Waukesha County Circuit Court in 1983. “I really had no game plan that took me with all of those abrupt turns,” Gempeler said. “All of a sudden, I woke up one day and I was a judge.”With the move to the bench, Gempeler, who became chief judge in 1994, found his niche.“This is the most satisfying work that I’ve been engaged in,” he said. “Judging is judging. It’s resolving disputes, helping people bring closure to their lives. I’ve found it to be personally rewarding.” The veteran judge said he has two distinct sides to his personality — one he shows on the bench, the other he saves for his chambers.When dressed in his black robe and sitting on the bench, Gempeler said his approach is more formal, as are his expectations of those appearing in his court.“I demand punctuality for starters and preparedness,” he said. “I think attorneys know when they come through the door that they had better be on time and they had better be ready.”Those who follow Gempeler back to his chambers see a different side of the chief judge. The most striking surprise lies in the chambers, which are filled with clowns — clown paintings, rag doll clowns, clown needlepoint and other clown tchotchke of every shape and size.The clown motif took on a life all its own after Gempeler hung a clown painting that he had since childhood. Over the years, friends and colleagues helped him fill his chambers with their gifts. Gempeler said it brightens the mood in his office and provides an emotional contrast to the courtroom.“The typical reaction is kind of surprise because of the formality of the courtroom,” Gempeler said. “Although I’m cordial, I am also very formal. When they come back here, they are a little surprised that the surrounding is so laid back.”His formal approach to the bench leaves some room for the veteran judge to bring a human touch.“I like to have some humor from the bench if it’s appropriate,” he said. “I’ve heard from some attorneys who said their clients were put at ease by my demeanor.”The role of chief includes administrative duties in addition to Gempeler’s judicial responsibilities. When those duties pertain to planning and implementing elements that set the course for the Third District, Gempeler said, he enjoys the work. But the job entails other, less enjoyable elements.

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