Emerging from his vineyard in a suit, retiring Clinton County District Judge Charles Pelton attempted to wipe a smudge of dirt from his right cuff.
He said he had put on one of his best, hoping that afternoon to make the hour-long trek from his farm just north of Clinton to the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport to see Joel Barrows sworn in as the next 7th Judicial District judge.
“He’ll be a good one,” Pelton said of Barrows.
Barrows, of Bettendorf, was plucked from the prosecutors’ office at the federal courthouse in Davenport as one of the two judicial nominees for Gov. Terry Branstad, who selected Barrows.
During a tour of the winery on his farm, Pelton said he has met some fascinating people in his long career. Pelton officially retired Tuesday after spending 38 years on the bench.
He had to. Iowa law says 72 is the mandatory retirement age, and Pelton reached that milestone Wednesday.
He reached another milestone: He was the longest-serving district judge in the state.
Between seeing Barrows and planning his retirement party, Pelton relaxed Thursday on his stone patio overlooking the Mississippi River, reflecting on his career while petting his dog, Lilly, a great Pyrenees and border collie mix.
His eyes often veered off to the river view that besides white pelicans and barges includes the water tower at the long-vacant Thomson Correctional Center across the water in Thomson, Ill.
The job of a judge is sometimes lonely, he said.
“You’re called upon to send someone to prison for the rest of his life. Some are forever mad at you. You use the best judgment, and sure, you’re wrong sometimes. I mean, you’re bound to be wrong sometimes when you’re called upon to make at least 1,000 significant decisions a year.”
He shared one of his mistakes. He said he granted custody of a child in a particular custody battle to the father because the mother suffered mental-health issues. He later found out the father had driven the mother to mental instability and a juvenile court judge put the child back with the mother.
“We can be fooled,” he said.
Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolf called Pelton “a strong voice of reason” who chose his words from the bench carefully and sought to help parties reach consensus rather than push his own agenda.
Wolf recalled trying a murder case in front of Pelton during which he and the defense attorney couldn’t agree on a point related to jury instructions when Pelton intervened.
“Gentlemen,” Wolf recalled Pelton saying, “why don’t we consider what the law has to say about this?”
Over the years since his appointment in 1974, Pelton said he’s heard it all and presided over some awful cases, some he’ll never forget.
He’s especially troubled when children are victims, having heard several of the clergy sex-abuse cases in Scott County.
He said at one time, 36 civil cases were filed against the Catholic Diocese of Davenport, three cases were tried and two went before juries, which returned $2 million verdicts to the plaintiffs. The financial implication was so enormous, he said, that it plunged the diocese into federal bankruptcy court and resulted in a $37 million settlement to cover more than 150 victims.
“The Scott County juries did that, and rightfully so,” he said.
Pelton does not agree with the state’s statute of limitation laws that restrict trying accused child molesters criminally.
While human behavior hasn’t changed, awareness of even the most heinous crimes, including child abuse, has increased, he said.
He’s seen other issues involving children evolve over the nearly four decades, saying that now anecdotally more than 50 percent of family law cases involve child support and custody visits. He added he’s seen far more such cases recently in which children are born to un-wed parents living together.
He said the Iowa Legislature never has addressed children in co-habitating arrangements, and in his decisions, he has applied custody language from the dissolution of marriage law he championed while in the Iowa House of Representatives from 1966 to ’72.
“Kids were called ‘illegitimate,’” he said. “We abolished ‘illegitimate.’ You shouldn’t label kids that way.”
Courts have evolved to become “society’s safety net,” he said, referring to cases involving drugs, alcohol and mental health.
“It’s changed from hearing cases to being the mechanism for the implementation of social services,” he said. “Now, you can’t get into the mental-health system till you get an order from the court.”
A positive trend, he said, is seeing more women serving on the bench. There were no female district court judges when he was appointed. The first in Iowa — Margaret Briles — came out of the 7th Judicial District when Gov. Robert D. Ray appointed her in 1977.
“I’m embarrassed there were no women in law when I went to law school,” he said. “Now, they’re more than 50 percent. What a shame to overlook half our population.”
Pelton and his wife, Davenport attorney Dorothy O’Brien, maintain a sense of humor about their profession. They’ve given their wines names such as “White Collar Crime,” “Ms. D’Meanor, ” “Guilty Pleasure” and “Sweet Justice.”
As for the river, Pelton can argue he has the best view, having purchased a mile-and-three-quarters of bluff-top overlooking one of the widest spots on the Mississippi. The winery is named Wide River.
Since the 1970s, they’ve amassed 160 acres, on which they farm organic produce and a vineyard, which Pelton called a “hobby gone out of control.”
In semi-retirement mode, Pelton said he still wishes to keep busy between his farm and a private law practice in Davenport. He pondered for a moment the future of the state’s judicial system.
Although he prefers Iowa’s appointment of judges over elections in Illinois, Pelton said Iowa’s courts aren’t immune from politics. He said he finds it “deeply disturbing” that “demagogues” can vote out a judge up for retention because they don’t like a particular decision.
He cited the unanimous April 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision that paved the way for same-sex marriage in Iowa with creating an uproar among some voters. Enough voters opposed to the decision turned out the next year to vote out Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices Michael Streit and David Baker, whom Pelton called “good friends.”
The Republican Party of Iowa and conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats recently announced that they will attempt again to stir up enough voters to oust Justice David Wiggins in the Nov. 6 judicial retention vote.
“Some think judges should be political,” Pelton said. “You be the judge. The executive and legislative branches are political. The judicial branch upholds the Constitution. That’s where the Constitution lives, in the courtroom, everyday.”
Until 1962, Iowa elected judges. Pelton’s glad that changed.
“Under the old law, I probably wouldn’t have been elected,” he said.