Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Lister says he will retire when his term expires in 2015.
Lister’s decision to not seek re-election was divulged in a letter he sent Gov. Scott Walker last week speaking against proposed changes to judicial compensation.
The 62-year-old judge, who was appointed in August 2008 and re-elected the next year, said retiring at the end of his term was his original plan and Walker’s proposal to make public workers pay more toward retirement and health insurance did not influence his decision.
“I’ll be 67 years old (when my term is up),” Lister said. “It’s time.”
Lister has practiced law since 1973, and he formed his own law firm in 1983 and became a trial lawyer. He was Jackson County’s district attorney from 1975 to 1980 and also served as the county’s corporation counsel during that time.
Lister was appointed to circuit court judge after Judge-elect and former law partner Eric Stutz died of cancer in the spring of 2008. He succeeded Judge Gerald Laabs.
Lister said he doesn’t plan to continue a law career after retirement. But until then, he said he will continue to serve in his role and work toward creating new and needed programs for Jackson County. Treatment Court has grown during Lister’s tenure, and he’s worked on establishing the adult community service program and the small and large civil mediation program.
“I have used and will continue to use my position to implement as many new innovative programs as I can in this county,” Lister said. “We have implemented many new programs, and I still have a couple I’d like to get started.”
Lister’s Feb. 15 letter to Walker chastises the new governor for proposing increases to judge’s contributions to retirement and health insurance midterm. Lister said he could write the letter and suffer no electoral backlash like some of his colleagues might for speaking out.
Walker has proposed that most public employees pay at least 12.6 percent of annual health insurance premiums — up from an average 6 percent —as a way to help counter a $3.6 billion deficit. The proposal also calls for most employees to contribute 50 percent of the annual payment into the Wisconsin Retirement System, which is estimated to be 5.8 percent of an employee’s salary.
Lister said he doesn’t believe it’s appropriate to adjust an elected officials’ compensation in the middle of his or her term. He added Walker’s proposal likely would make judges pay almost 6.7 percent of their salary toward retirement since more is contributed toward their pension than average public employees.
“The changes that you are making are more punitive towards judges than to any other elected state office holders or employees,” Lister wrote to Walker. “I am perplexed as to why you would be so motivated.
“I will proudly continue to serve the people of my county and state, and I will honor my commitments to the state despite your failure to honor the state’s commitment to judges.”
Cullen Werwie, press secretary for Walker’s office, said the governor’s proposal does not specifically address judicial compensation and is not meant to isolate judges.
“In no way are judges singled out for anything,” Werwie said.
Wisconsin circuit court judges make the same amount and are paid about $129,000 a year. Lister said he earned seven times the annual salary of a circuit court judge in the two years before he sought his current office.
But Lister said his stance is not about the money, it’s about principle. He said he believes state employees should participate more in health care costs and retirement, but he feels changes to elected officials’ compensation should go into effect following the re-election of that office.
“What I object to wasn’t about money, it’s about this certain principle that you don’t go on manipulating a judge’s compensation in the middle of his or her term,” Lister said.
Lister said he has received several thank-yous and appreciation from fellow judges regarding his letter. Werwie said he had not yet seen the letter.