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October 06, 2023 National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

"Welcome to the Court"

By Hon. Richard Ginkowski, Pleasant Prairie, WI

I was recently listening to a presentation on truancy which, I suppose, is a bane for most of us with juvenile dockets. The presenter told us about a high school student who would often show up around 1:00 p.m. Chastised by the office staff for substantial tardiness the girl walked out of the building. Our presenter ran after her and invited the prodigal student to her office where she welcomed her with a cup of coffee and conversation.

“So many people would look at this kid and think because she’s always so late that education wasn’t very important to her,” our presenter said. “But maybe it was so important to her that came in anyway, knowing that she’d likely be chewed out for being tardy,” she added.

Like many truant students there were some terribly problematic things going on in this student’s life that impacted her ability to be in school like other students. Showing up was an invitation to the counselor to explore ways to help this student. I thought of the many times people walk into the courtroom late and a few when they may have caught an “evil glance” from the bench. Yes, I may be irritated that they’re late but whenever possible I try to remember that even though they missed the opening hymn they’re still in church.

This is not to trivialize failure to appear or noncompliance with court orders. Indeed there are times when sanctions are warranted and I’ve imposed them. But I know that for some people just making it through the door was a challenge. Maybe they have an outstanding warrant or some other sanction for prior noncompliance. The fact that they’re here now is an invitation for me, when possible, to explore with them solutions which may not be possible if I were to “light them up.” I suspect many of these folks are surprised to hear the judge say, “Welcome to the court.”

Judges (surprise, surprise) are human. I can get annoyed when people don’t show up or come in late. I may occasionally point out that “a summons isn’t an invitation.” But sometimes I may check myself and realize that the person in front of me may have had to jump over some personal hurdles just to walk through that door. While it may not be possible to excuse every omission I can at least start a conversation by saying, “Welcome to the court.”

Hon. Richard Ginkowski

Executive Committee Member, National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

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