ANTIGO — Law books are crowded with thick lines of black type enumerating offenses and punishments.
Langlade County Circuit Court Judge John Rhode looks at the white space between those lines as well.
“The law is the law,” Rhode, celebrating his six-month anniversary on the bench, said. “But there is a bit of latitude, a bit of discretion in some cases.”
While mindful of the separation of church and state, Rhode stressed that his strong Catholic faith, nurtured at St. John the Evangelist Parish, has an influence in his professional as well as personal life.
“I believe it helps me be a better judge if I look to my faith for guidance at times,” he said. “I will continue to pray and ask for God’s help to do my job well and justly.”
Rhode was elected judge in April 2015, defeating the county’s sitting district attorney for the position left open by the retirement of Judge Fred Kawalski five months earlier. He actually took his seat two months before the formal investiture in August, appointed to fill out the vacant term by Gov. Scott Walker.
“I don’t think I ever thought about being a judge until the middle years of my legal career,” said Rhode, a 1995 graduate of Marquette Law School in Milwaukee. “But it gradually emerged as a more attractive option. As a lawyer I always enjoyed the problem-solving more than the advocating and I think that makes me a better judge.”
That ceremony — both somber and joyful — brought out family and friends as well as judges from across the Ninth Judicial District and two state Supreme Court justices. Fr. David Schmidt, pastor of Rhode’s home parish, gave the invocation.
Rhode said another life-changing event occurred years early, when be moved from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod faith of his youth to embrace Catholicism. The judge explained that his youth and young adult years were spent as a “C&E,” meaning he attended church at Christmas and Easter. That changed after marriage.
“I decided it would be easier to be one faith and she wasn’t interested in becoming a Lutheran so I said I would look at Catholicism,” he said. “I was very comfortable with that.”
Guided by Fr. Jerry Worman, Fr. Charles Hoffmann and Deacon Tom Hanley, Rhode completed the religious education classes and rite of confirmation in 1998, initially as a member of St. Mary Parish and then Ss. Mary and Hyacinth.
“I immediately took to it,” he said. “The history and the traditions of the Catholic Church really appealed to me.”
As he studied and learned, Rhode began to share his faith journey, a process that continues today.
“It took marriage and children to make me reconnect with faith,” he said. “Now, it is part of who I am.”
His first months on the bench have been a time of learning and nurturing relationships.
“About 75 percent of what we do involves criminal matters and I initially didn’t expect it to be that much,” he said. “Coming from my background as a criminal lawyer it is the area of the law that I know the best.”
The volume of criminal cases, although serious, is largely centered around a small group of individuals and their illicit behaviors, not reflecting the population as a whole and not unusual in comparison to other counties in the region, he said.
The workload as the only judge in the county — and without a law clerk — is significant, he added.
“My predecessor worked so hard and was so diligent,” he said. “I’m learning that it is important to find a balance in what you do.”
The judge has also received advice from his fellow jurists in the Ninth Judicial District.
“My peers in the district have been wonderful,” he said. “It’s a very nice camaraderie.”
That atmosphere extends to the cadre of lawyers who bring their cases before the court. Rhode knows many of them personally, through interactions as part of the Langlade County Bar Association, and especially the yearly Christmas party, which he said creates a “friendship by necessity.”
“Quite frankly we could use some more lawyers who are based in Langlade County,” he said. “We see a wide variety from across the area here, with many different personalities, including some who are very passionate about their clients.”
At his swearing-in, the courtroom was filled with a level of collegiality and friendship far different than that found at most events that happen within its four walls. And Rhode used the occasion to express a hope that goodwill would continue.
“No matter how high the stakes or how powerful the emotions,” he said at the time, “there is no reason why we cannot all be civil to each other in this room and hopefully outside of it as well.”
As he enters the second half of his inaugural year on the bench, Rhode said he will continue to focus on nurturing that atmosphere among the legal community, and he will continue to be guided by his Christian principles.
“When I was an attorney, I used to pray a lot, especially before big trials,” he said. “However I never prayed to win any of my trials. Rather, I always prayed for two things. First, that I would perform my job well for my client, and second, I would pray for justice.”