There are familiar old faces in new places at the Vilas County Courthouse in Eagle River.

For the first time since 1983, a new judge sits on the Vilas County Circuit Court bench, following the Oct. 26 judicial investiture of five-year Vilas County District Attorney and former 16-year Vilas County Corporation Counsel Martha J. Milanowski to Wisconsin’s Ninth Judicial District.

Milanowski replaces Judge Neal A. “Chip” Nielsen III, who announced his Oct. 2 retirement in July.

On Sept. 1, Gov. Tony Evers announced his appointment of Milanowski, a 1998 graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, to fill the remainder of Nielsen’s six-year bench term, which ends July 31, 2022. Milanowski will be up for election on the April 2022 ballot for a six-year term ending on July 31, 2028.

“The people of Vilas County and Wisconsin deserve judges who apply the law fairly and equally, and Martha Milanowski will do just that,” said Evers in making the appointment. “Her experience and strong roots in the community will make her an excellent judge for the people of Vilas County.”

Milanowski called her Oct. 26 investiture before a standing room only gathering at the Vilas County Courthouse “a wonderful day.”

“I’m overwhelmed by the support that I’ve received,” Milanowski said. “I’m joining an amazing group of people on the bench and I’m just very, very grateful. Certainly there’s a lot of pressure — it’s a very busy court and there’s very big shoes to fill. That’s not a surprise to me. I knew that would be the case. I hope I’m up for the task. I’m ready.”

Milanowski is cognizant of the gravity and far-reaching impact of her new role as judge — “having the final say when difficult decisions need to be made” and serving as the “gatekeeper of justice,” solving problems “when people can’t solve them on their own.”

“At the beginning of each day, a judge comes to work with the potential of making life altering decisions and the opportunity to make a difference in a person’s or a community’s life,” she said. “Ultimately, a judge makes difficult decisions when all other avenues have failed. She must ensure people’s rights are protected, treat everyone with respect, follow the law, be fair and administer justice without partiality. When somebody comes into court, they should expect nothing less. It is my hope that all parties and litigants will be in my courtroom knowing the rationale for my decisions and have confidence that every effort was made in justice. Socrates said four things belong to a judge — to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly and to decide impartially. I will add one more thing — to remember your heart.”

Stepping into her new role, Milanowski promises to be an attentive listener from the bench. n”As the Greek proverb states, ‘Only judge when you have heard all.’”

Milanowski outlined some of her judicial priorities moving forward as she takes the bench in Vilas County Circuit Court, which has experienced a 50% rise in the number of criminal cases between 2004 and 2019, with more than 800 criminal case filings annually.

“I want to keep the cases going; I don’t want cases to stagnate,” Milanowski said. “I want to see if we can really address the underlying issues that come before the court if there are those things, such as mental health, alcohol or drug struggles. Those need to be worked at. Judge Nielsen did a fine job at articulating those, looking at them and trying to fashion a remedy that would take that under consideration. I obviously want to do justice. I want to serve in a way that the community feels appropriate. And, obviously, I’ll follow the law.”

Milanowski is coming on board at a pivotal time in Vilas County Circuit Court history, as work is underway to add a state-approved second branch. A second judge will be elected next April to be seated Aug. 1, 2022. “Getting ready for that second judge — there’s a lot of planning that needs to take place and certainly I’ll be involved with that,” she said.

Overseeing a courtroom serving a diverse population across the breadth of the 1,018-square-mile, 23,047-resident county, equity is a major topic given the current national social climate.

“I want to run a court where everybody is welcome and everyone is respected,” Milanowski said, questioned on how she would prioritize and ensure equity in her courtroom. “I don’t know that I can prioritize equity. Everybody gets their day in court. Whether it’s a small claims trial up to a homicide; all cases are important.”

For Milanowski, rising to the bench is the culmination of a dream.

“I think early on I was just focused on where I was and as I continued to grow as a lawyer in this community, I was eyeing the bench eventually, definitely,” she said. “It was a dream I have achieved.”

Milanowski praised the “fantastic” foundation laid in advance of her judicial investiture by three weeks of mentoring and job shadowing across the Ninth Judicial District, which spans 14 northern Wisconsin counties.

“I will not lie; it’s been quite tiring,” Milanowski said of her onboarding. “It’s been a lot of miles on the road, but those miles lead to courthouses where there are amazing judges presiding. I’ve been able to sit right alongside them, learn from them, and then also take the bench and have them give me some positive feedback.”

Milanowski’s Oct 26 investiture was history-making as Vilas County’s first female circuit court judge.

“It’s a big deal for me just to be judge,” she said. “That I’m the first woman judge is a wonderful thing. I think it reflects our local bar, frankly, because we do have a lot of women attorneys who are up here now. Is it a wonderful thing to be the first woman judge? Absolutely. But I hope to be a judge just like all the other judges, male or female. I want to do my job and I want to do it well.”

Asked if passing the gavel in retirement to his bench successor was a “bittersweet” occasion, Nielsen said there was no bitter for him in Milanowski’s Oct. 26 judicial investiture, calling it “a sweet day.”

“We have just confirmed, and sworn in, a very competent judge for Vilas County,” Nielsen said. “I really haven’t had a regret about the decision to retire. So, for my standpoint, this is a great day for Vilas County and I’m very happy for Judge Milanowski.”

Nielsen said there’s three things that impress him about Milanowski: “her intelligence, which is obvious, her work ethic and her preparation. You can’t substitute those,” he noted. “People don’t come by those traits every day, or naturally. She’s just a perfect person for the job.”

Being new to the bench and the only circuit court judge for Vilas County until a second branch judge is elected and seated next year, Nielsen said the pressure will “undoubtedly” be on Milanowski given “the volume of the work until we end up with that second judgeship.”

“But she’ll rise to it,” Nielsen said of the challenges facing Milanowski. “She’ll be fine. She’ll rise to the occasion. I have no doubt about it; she’ll do her best and her best will be good enough — more than good enough.”

With retirement at hand, Nielsen said he will continue to reside in the area and plans to do some reserve judge work beginning next year once he’s put in sufficient “separation” time from the bench, adding he’s also “looking forward to other challenges” in retirement.

“We’re firmly planted in Vilas County and I’m not going anywhere,” said Nielsen.