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The judge whose buttons you didn't want to push

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Judge Stephen Simanek presides over his courtroom in the Racine County Law Enforcement Center on Monday, July 26, 2010, his final day of work on the bench. Simanek, 65, is retiring this month after three decades as a Racine County Circuit Judge. He decided to run for election as judge when he was 33, and was 35 when he was sworn in. / Scott Anderson Buy this Photo at

RACINE - Judge Stephen Simanek called it as he saw it.

In his 30 years on the bench, Simanek developed a reputation as a thoughtful, considerate judge who always did what he thought was right.

Sometimes, that meant letting someone out of prison. Other times, it meant sending them in for a long time.

Simanek, 65, is retiring this month after three decades as a Racine County Circuit Judge. He decided to run for election as judge when he was 33, and was 35 when he was sworn in. He has never had an opponent when he sought election to the bench, from the first time to the last.

During Simanek's last two years as a Racine County Circuit Court judge, he presided over some of the county's most high-profile cases.

Murder-for-hire. Fatal drunken driving crashes. The mayor brought up on child enticement charges.

No matter what the case, he read everything attorneys gave him, carefully considered the issues, and applied the law as he believed it should be applied.

Defense attorney Patrick Cafferty, who represented former mayor Gary Becker in the felony case that followed his going to meet a state agent who had posed online as a teenage girl, said even in the most high-profile of cases, Simanek was a fair judge.

"He was grace under pressure," Cafferty said, referring to Simanek's handling of the Becker case. "He did his job. He didn't grandstand. He didn't try to bring attention to himself. He handled that case the same way he handled every other case I've been in front of him on."

He gave Becker three years in prison and five years on extended supervision, a harsher sentence than most received after convictions following similar Internet stings. During sentencing, Simanek said he came to court that day prepared to send Becker home, with only probation. It was Becker's conduct while out on bond - including buying junior-size lingerie - and disclosed during the sentencing hearing that earned him the prison bid.

As he did with Becker, Simanek was known for telling people exactly why he decided a case one way or another.

Adrienne Moore, who runs the Racine Public Defender's Office, said Simanek was a fair judge, though you had to know what "pushes his buttons."

In misdemeanor court, she said, Simanek "felt like it was a court where people did some pretty stupid things, but they shouldn't be sent away forever." He routinely gave defendants a shorter sentence than what the prosecutor requested, she said. But push one of those buttons, and things could go the other way.

"In misdemeanor court many, many years ago I had a client where the D.A. was recommending minimal jail time (on a fourth-degree sexual assault case)," she said. "The guy was older, and though he was older, he mentally was not older. He was pretty immature. He had sex with a 16-year-old young lady, and he had done it in what Judge Simanek felt was a really disrespectful way."

Simanek didn't follow anyone's recommendation, she said.

"He gave significantly more jail time than even the prosecutor was recommending," she said. "We came to understand this is something that would set him off."

People who didn't pay child support, who abused public trust or didn't live up to their potential didn't impress him. Thanking him for spending time on a case didn't translate into a lighter sentence for a defendant, either.

Moore and others said the times when Simanek made an unusual decision, he did it because he honestly felt that was the best course of action. He wasn't motivated by a desire to please or placate the public or attorneys, and he treated everyone fairly.

"He was always respectful of everyone who came before him whether it was the litigants or the attorneys," defense attorney Cafferty said. "He never let the power of the position go to his head."

Cafferty first learned that 16 years ago, when he was a young lawyer in his first jury trial. It was a first-offense drunken driving case. Before the trial, he went to respected local lawyer Martin Hanson and asked what to expect. Hanson told him that despite the power of the bench and Simanek's Ivy League education - he got his law degree from Columbia University in New York City - he would be fair to everyone.

"In my experience Martin was right, Steve hasn't changed. He has always been fair and he's remained a regular guy," Cafferty said. "He never believed he was better than anybody else and always treated people as equals, and that's a remarkable thing to have maintained that for as long as he did."



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