JEFFERSON — Whenever attorney Bennett J. Brantmeier’s associate, Danielle Thompson, would return from court confused by a ruling, he would tell her the same thing: “The law is what the judge says the law is.”
On Wednesday, Brantmeier accepted the responsibility of interpreting the law when, with Thompson’s help, he donned a black robe as the newest Jefferson County Circuit Court judge.
“I know that you will accept that responsibility with open-mindedness, compassion and an unwavering commitment to justice,” Thompson told the new judge. “I look forward to seeing the difference you make for the citizens of Jefferson County on the other side of the bench and wish you the best of luck in your new role.”
Brantmeier officially was welcomed to the bench during an investiture ceremony attended by family, friends, colleagues and other dignitaries that filled not one, but two courtrooms, on hand to see him take the oath of office and be presented with his judicial robe.
Among the many attendees were the other three Jefferson County Circuit Court judges: William Hue, Jennifer Weston and Robert Dehring Jr.
“Ben, I don’t know if you know how lucky you are, but this is one of the biggest (investitures regarding) attendance — at least in Jefferson County — that we’ve seen, (judging) by the number of judges that are appearing,” Hue, who acted as master of ceremonies, said as he welcomed his fellow judges from around the state. “Obviously, you’re very much respected and loved and you should be happy, and I’m sure that you are.”
A 1992 graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, Brantmeier will preside over Branch IV of Jefferson County Circuit Court. He is only the second judge to preside over Branch IV since its creation in 1999.
Brantmeier, 51, won the seat in an unopposed bid for judge in the April 4 election. He takes over for retired Judge Randy Koschnick, who chose not to run for re-election in order to accept a position as director of state courts.
Speaking first was Capt. Dale Lutz of the Jefferson Police Department. He began by recounting the first time he met Brantmeier.
“In 1997, you were at (the late Raymond) Krek’s law office,” he recalled, addressing Brantmeier. “You walked across the driveway and told me that I had my outboard motor running and I should have it in water. (I thought), ‘Who is this guy and why is he telling me what to do?’ I explained that I had muffs on the motor and I was just running it to test it.
“He introduced himself, told me he was a new associate with Ray Krek, and I explained to him that I was a new police officer for the City of Jefferson,” Lutz continued. “We laughed, said, ‘I’ll see you in court,’ and we both agreed we would win our cases, no matter if we were against each other or not.”
The following year, the two went hunting together.
“We sat in a blind talking about different things and realized we have the same birthday,” Lutz recalled. “Of course, I’m one year older and he reminds me of that every year. It’s a (competition) to text each other on May 2 to see who can wish the other a happy birthday first. When I worked late shift, I always won. Now I work day shift, but I usually still can beat him.”
It was the start of a friendship that has lasted to this day, he noted.
There was a “dark day” one fall, however.
“Ben had called me and wanted to go bow hunting,” Lutz said. “I told him I couldn’t go, wished him luck, said, ‘Be careful getting into that tree stand,’ and I kind of laughed about it, never thought anything of it.”
Later that day, Lutz heard sirens leaving the city, heading east. As a police officer, hearing sirens was a common occurrence. Since they were leaving the city, he thought it had nothing to do with him.
Then he learned the sirens were for Brantmeier, who had fallen out a tree stand and severely injured his arm.
“He was in really bad shape and, after I got to go see him and talk to him, he had told me, ‘I didn’t think I was going to make it out of the woods that day,’” Lutz said. “He was hurt that bad. He said, ‘I’ve put myself into work so much’ and he said, ‘I need to kick back, Dale. I need to start enjoying life. That reminded me that I need to do that.’ I thought, ‘Good for you.’”
He said that when Brantmeier opened his own law firm, initially Latsch & Brantmeier and later Brantmeier Law, they didn’t work together on a daily basis. However, Brantmeier eventually became city attorney, and it was “quite often” when they got together due to something involving law enforcement for the City of Jefferson.
Lutz explained that any time he needed something from Brantmeier, he could call him and would get the help needed.
“I would text him and it would always be, ‘Dude, I’m in court. What do you need?’” Lutz said. “But, I’d get my answer and it made me feel good that I could reach out to him and that he would take care of it.”
In closing, the captain said he couldn’t express how proud he was of Brantmeier.
“Just with our friendship, where I’ve seen him go full circle as an associate at Krek’s, opening up his own (firm) and now his judgeship,” Lutz said. “I think he’s going to be a great asset to Jefferson County with his integrity. He knows to do the right thing and, I think, it’s just going to be a plus for Jefferson County. With that said, I wish you well, my friend.”
Next to speak was Jefferson Common Council President and former Jefferson Mayor William Brandel.
“Today, we are gathered to witness the investiture of Bennett J. Brantmeier — he always tells me that it’s a very legal-sounding name and he was named so that one day he would be a judge — as our newest circuit judge,” Brandel said, drawing laughs from attendees. “I couldn’t be more proud of Ben. In a few minutes, I’ll have to call him the Honorable Judge Bennett J. Brantmeier, but for now, it’ll be just Ben.”
Brandel met Brantmeier through Krek, whom he had known for “many, many years.”
“When I was talking to Ben, one of the first times we really talked, I found out that Ben was very interested in Boy Scouting,” Brandel said. “As an old proponent of scouting myself, I liked Ben immediately and we talked a lot about scouting. As busy as Ben was starting out in the law field — and he was really busy — he took the time to get really involved in Boy Scouting, which I admire him for.
“He was soon assistant troopmaster of Troop 147, my old troop,” he continued. “Ben helped kids work on their merit badges. He also was into hunting, safety and fishing, among other things, and he remained assistant troopmaster from 1994 to 2002. He cared about the law, but he also cared about the kids, and that’s important and I like that about Ben.”
Brandel also lauded Brantmeier’s work with the Kiwanis Club.
“Ben didn’t just join Kiwanis — or any other group, for that matter — to have something to put down on a resume,” he said. “When Ben joined something, it was because he wanted to get involved. He took over as chair of the Kiwanis Youth Services Committee practically from the day he joined the club and he is still the chairman.
“One of the early things he convinced the club to do was to sponsor and operate an annual event called ‘Take-A-Kid-Fishing Day,’” Brandel continued. “It’s become our club’s most successful and satisfying event, thanks to Ben.”
Looking back at his time as mayor from 1986-94, Brandel explained that he worked with then-city attorney Phil Ristow, who always gave direct, precise and understandable answers.
“It’s been a pleasure working with Ben because Ben also gives direct, precise and understandable answers to every question put before him,” he said. “Ben has earned the respect of everyone who works at the city level — all the committees, the people who work at city hall, certainly the council members, the city administrator.
“We all give Ben great respect and know that he understands the law very well,” Brandel added. “He’s very professional, extremely knowledgeable and we will definitely miss Ben at the city. It’s the downside to Ben being elected circuit judge actually — we lose him at the city.”
Thompson then spoke, giving a brief summary of Brantmeier’s career and highlighting some of the memorable experiences she has had as an associate at his law firm.
One experience was witnessing Brantmeier argue before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where he successfully defended a fire department on municipal immunity, managing to get all the justices to agree unanimously with his position.
“Throughout his career, Ben has always been a zealous advocate for his clients,” Thompson said. “Those attorneys who have had the privilege of being on the other side of a case with Ben may have wished at times that he was a little less zealous.
“However, whether representing a business, a municipality or a local farmer, Ben treated all clients with respect and gave all cases the same level of care,” she continued. “No matter how busy he was, Ben was patient and courteous with his clients, always taking time to explain the proceedings and answer questions. I’m confident that Ben will continue to do this for those that come before him as a judge.”
He leaves big shoes to fill, Thompson noted, adding that the bar’s loss truly is the bench’s gain.
She thanked Brantmeier for taking a chance on a “young lawyer right out of law school,” when he hired her five years ago.
“Too few attorneys are willing to do that these days and I appreciate the trust that he put in me to represent his firm and the time he invested to teach me the things that I’m not taught in law school,” Thompson said. “I certainly would not be where I am today in my career, or in my beautiful office across the street, had it not been for Ben’s mentorship.
“When working on cases, it was common for Ben to preface all of his advice with, ‘Ray Krek taught me this’ or ‘Judge Hue taught me that,’” she added. “I look forward one day to telling my associates, ‘Judge Brantmeier taught me this.’”
During his remarks, Judge Hue, who along with Krek hired Brantmeier in 1994, began by explaining that he liked him right away.
“I felt he was a good fit for Ray Krek,” Hue said. He pointed to Brantmeier’s enjoyment of outdoor activities, the fact that he’s Catholic and his love for Boy Scouting. “More important for Raymond, and what was ringing the bells and five stars, was, back then, Ben was a Democrat and I knew Ray was going to love him.
“So I described him to Ray as a legal piranha with a big brain and lots of stamina,” he continued. “As I thought, he hit it off with Raymond and stayed at the law firm past my election and well into future years. He quickly replaced me as a partner and embarked on a successful legal career here in Jefferson.”
Krek claimed to have taught both Hue and Brantmeier everything they knew, but not everything he knew, Hue said.
“I hope to help Ben and our other new judge, Bob Dehring, in any way I can and I’ll hold nothing back in that effort,” he noted. “I hope they’ll both soon know everything I do and I’m sure they will help me as well and I will learn from them.
“So a new era has begun,” Hue added. “An old judge is upstairs and a seasoned judge is upstairs and the two new guys are downstairs and I just advise you guys not to cause me any trouble.”
Attendees laughed at the comment, which referred to the courtrooms’ locations, only to laugh harder when Dehring recommended to Brantmeier that he go home early on Friday.
“Ben, I leave you with this paraphrase of a Warren Zevon observation about mastering an art: Hopefully, it will only take you a short time to realize you don’t know everything and, soon after, you’ll understand it’s entirely possible to learn most things about it. But, it will take a good long time to actually master it, but you will,” Hue said. “Welcome to our little family and I wish you the best and a long career in which to master your art.”
Upon taking the oath, Brantmeier was presented with his judicial robe by Thompson. Son Archer then presented him with a gavel, although it wasn’t exactly useable considering it was almost as big as Archer and on loan from Koschnick.
Judges Hue, Weston, Dehring and Koschnick presented Brantmeier with a canvas picture of the Wisconsin seal for his office.
“Ben and I were talking the other night and he was making inquiry as to whether or not I’d speak at his investiture and he reminded me of what our mothers taught us when we were little, which is, if you have nothing nice to say about someone, don’t say anything,” Weston said prior to presenting the gift. “I told Ben that I didn’t live and die by that. I had a different one, which is to speak the truth.
“The truth is that I met Ben early on in his legal career, and I was pretty young myself,” she continued. “What attorney Thompson described as zealous advocacy, I considered really annoying. But, we became friends and we’ve been very good friends and colleagues, I think, since that time. I’m very happy to have you back and I respect everything you’ve done to get to where you are. Congratulations.”
Brantmeier began his speech by thanking everyone in attendance.
“I look forward to working with all the judges in Jefferson County,” Brantmeier said. “I’m honored by the judicial show-up at this investiture. Thank you to each of you for coming. I look forward to working with you for the cause, for justice.”
The new judge thanked God for blessing him with the opportunity to serve the citizens of Jefferson County.
“I find myself, many times, praying for many people that I know of that are down or need some help,” Brantmeier said. “So I pray for people many times in church. I found myself praying for me to be fair as a judge.”
Next was his family.
“I want to thank Mom for my work ethic — I grew up on a farm — and many of my aunts and uncles who are here today as well, are also farmers,” he said. “She worked very hard and raised five kids single-handedly. She taught us kids to treat all people fairly. It didn’t matter your race, religion, status in the community.”
Calling out his siblings, he thanked each individually. Sister Alisa Herrick was thanked for always having his back; sister Cindy Brantmeier for pushing him to do his best in school and in his career; brother Dan Brantmeier for “keeping me sane” with hunting trips and other outdoor activities; and brother Ed Brantmeier for “reminding me that parents parent differently.”
“I want to really thank my son, Archer, for agreeing to take on this quest with me,” Brantmeier said. “We talked about what it was going to mean to run for judge and to be a judge and the public service aspect of it. He was very supportive. ... Archer, I want to let you know I’m very proud of you and I look forward to finding more gold, catching bigger fish and shooting bigger bucks.”
Brantmeier’s partner, Amy Tessman, and her sons, Travis and Wyatt, all of whom were in attendance, were thanked for being there for him and all of their support.
He then reflected back on his start in Jefferson County with Krek and Hue at their law firm, which hired him in anticipation of Hue running for judge.
“Bill got elected and I continued to work with Raymond and we worked as country lawyers,” Brantmeier said. “To me, what that means is, you call people back. You talk to people. The big thing that Raymond and Bill Hue taught me is communication.”
Many times it’s Friday and there’s a list of people that you need to call back, but you want to put it off for a week because there’s other stuff going on and you “just couldn’t get to it,” he said. But, even if it’s bad news, people want to know.
“That’s what was instilled in me and that’s what I hope to bring to the bench, is to listen to people, because it is their lives, and to give everybody an opportunity to speak their side, whether they’re represented or not,” Brantmeier stressed. “I hope to be able to continue to do that on the bench.”
Pointing to the story of his fall from a tree told by Lutz, Brantmeier acknowledged that it did change his life.
“After that and after the hospital and coming back to work — and I can’t thank Ray Krek enough for covering for me during my recovery, both financially and mentally — but he did,” he said. “Raymond was a great lawyer and he worked and made every dollar he could under the sun and he died of a heart attack at 64. Before that, I just looked at myself and said, ‘You know what, I don’t need to make every dollar under the sun in order to be happy. You can be comfortable.’”
When he split from Krek to form his own firm, it was an amicable and “there was no bridge to burn” because Krek understood, Brantmeier explained.
Then he turned to his new courthouse post.
“Judgeship is a nonpartisan position and I can honestly say I’ve never been completely affiliated with one party or the other,” he said. “I do have strong beliefs on the Second Amendment that I share with Judge Koschnick. In fact, I think I have stronger because I have more weapons.”
The hunter’s comment earned a round of roaring laughter from those in attendance.
“But I also know Judge Koschnick, who I am replacing on the bench, is a strong believer in the Constitution and in God, and so am I,” Brantmeier said. “The Constitution, I intend to have a strict interpretation of it because I believe that’s a correct interpretation of it. I’m a Catholic boy, so I do have some beliefs, but, from that point, I go from different ideas and different parties.
“I’d like to thank Judge Koschnick — mostly for not running again — but I also want to thank him for taking the time to invite me to sit as a judge-elect in a criminal jury trial,” he added. “That was very informative, I learned a lot, and for your guidance in other matters in the courthouse.”
He also thanked Hue, Dehring and Weston for welcoming him and all the assistance they’ve provided in recent days, adding that he looks forward to working with them.
“I also want to thank the late Ray Krek for instilling in me the fire,” Brantmeier said. “He taught us — and you’ll agree, Judge Hue — you never give up on a client or a cause. They hired you for a case and we know, as lawyers and the judges can tell you this, you have to follow the law. You make new law at times, but you have to follow the law and you have to apply it.”
The last person Brantmeier thanked was his paralegal, Ashley Yaeger, whom he described as his right arm.
“Now, I have had the pleasure in my 25 years to have a lot of great legal assistants, a lot of great paralegals, a lot of great office managers and administrators, but I never had one person be all three of that,” he said. “Because of that, I want to thank the person for helping me become the lawyer that I am — or that I was, because I had to surrender that — and hopefully I can carry that on to the bench.”
The new judge then called Yaeger up and presented her with a wooden plaque he had had made.
The closing remarks came from Koschnick.
“My job (today) is the adjournment and, what you’ll find, Judge Brantmeier, is one of the most powerful tools in the judge’s toolbox is the power to say, ‘We’re done. It’s time for everyone to go home and this conversation is ended,’” Koschnick said. “As I pass the Branch IV torch to you, I wish you the best. I can’t think of a more honorable person, a more suitable, competent person, to take over Branch IV.”