The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Clinton

August 31, 2012

District court judge reminisces on career

CLINTON — The mid-morning sun blazed over Charles Pelton as he sat on the back patio of his home overlooking the Mississippi River on Thursday.

As a gentle breeze whirled by, Pelton revisited the beginning of his landmark 38-year career as a judge in the Seventh District Court.

“Only yesterday, only yesterday,” he said, smiling.

Pelton retired on Aug. 14, a day before his 72nd birthday and mandatory retirement. He is the longest serving district court judge in recent state history.  

“I don’t think I changed a lot, but society did,” he said.

His influence in the courts began years before he ever judged a case.

“The courts have been my baby since I was a kid,” he said.

Pelton was elected to serve Clinton County in the Iowa House of Representatives when he was a 26-year-old senior in law school.  In his five years as a lawmaker, the Clinton native handled many pieces of legislation still in effect today including the law that put the current court system organization in place, the dissolution of marriage law and the unified controlled substance act.

“I really enjoyed my time in the legislature. Those were probably some of my most prolific years,” he said.

Pelton wore out several vehicles driving back and forth from Clinton to Des Moines. The trips also began to wear on his marriage to fellow attorney Dorothy O’Brien and their growing family.

“You can’t be gone half the time, run a law practice and raise a family,” he said.

For two years, he focused more on his family and private law practice before taking the bench.

When Pelton was appointed judge by Gov. Robert Ray in 1974 he felt honored, but the initial exuberance wore off after he realized the full weight of his position.

“It changes your entire life,” he said. “You live this job. You’re always on call. You live in a glass house.”

Being a judge also pulled him away from his former attorney colleagues, into a place of complete independence and late nights making nearly 1,000 consequential decisions a year.

“The job of being a judge is kind of lonely,” he said. “You have to take people out of society. We’re the ones that have to make those decisions.”

One area that has dramatically changed since the father of five (and the grandfather of five more) took the bench, is the increased amount of custody cases around children born to un-wed couples living together. In many cases, he said, these co-habitations dissolve within six months after the child is born.

“The change that I’ve seen that’s really significant is today people have children and nobody blushes. So many times they don’t have the commitment to raise a child or the mean to do so,” he said. “It’s tough on the kids. I don’t know what’s going to happen to our society in the next 20 to 30 or 40 years.”

He’s handled a large number of custody cases in his time, which he said aren’t any less significant than criminal cases.  

“You’re making the decision on what’s best for a child for the rest of that child’s life,” he said as he removed his glasses and peered into the vineyard of his wife’s other business, Wide River Winery, across the yard.

One of the improvements, Pelton said, is the increased amount of women in his field. When he was appointed, there were no female district judges.  Margaret Briles, the first in Iowa, was appointed in 1977.  

“I think I had one woman in my law classes,” he said. “We’ve seen women come into the law and politics and it’s for the better. When you look at our decisions, we really aren’t very different. We all follow the same statutory law and the same appellate law.”

The job of a judge, he said, can be simplified to four steps; first, judges listen to the evidence, which is often contested. Next they decide credibility of the parties and witnesses, followed by deciding the facts and finally applying the law.  

“We do the best job we can,” he said. “You try not to lose sleep over it.”

Pelton said in the past nearly 40 years, he’s presided over many cases too awful to ponder the details of. Most, he said, involving crimes against children.

He heard some of the sex-abuse cases against the Catholic Diocese of Davenport.  He said at one point, 36 civil cases had been filed. Of those, three were tried and two were heard by juries, resulting in $2 million rulings for the plaintiffs.  

“Listening to that testimony was compelling. There were really terrible people who hid behind the collar,” he said. “They (the victims) were in mid-life before they realized how badly they had been damaged.”

In the end, he said, the cases caused the Diocese to file for bankruptcy and a $37 million settlement dispersed to more than 150 victims.

“Lots of people were angry.  A judge that makes those kinds of rulings takes some heat,” he said.

While none of his decisions in the clergy cases were reversed, Pelton holds no qualms about the realities of his career.

“I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes,” he said. “Sometimes you’re fooled.”

Pelton said he’s flirted with the idea of leaving the bench a few times in the past 20 years at the request of O’Brien, but never felt compelled enough to step away.

Even after being forced to step away, retirement is an illusion for Pelton, who is opening a private mediation firm in Davenport.  

“I’m two weeks out and I’m already starting an office,” he said, laughing.

Even his days at home are spent working. Pelton has 110 acres of organic produce to care for, his wife’s winery to help with and a bulldozer in his yard he calls a “toy” to keep him busy.

He scoffed at the thought of spending retirement lounging in front of the television.

“I don’t want to lay around for two years and die,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of other things to do.”

As he walked through his riverside home, O’Brien making fresh basil pesto in the kitchen, and up the drive to Wide River Winery, Pelton thought about all the time he spent ruling on the fate of the people who stepped into his court room.

“It’s a very satisfying job,” he said. “But when everybody else goes home, you have to stay and write your decision.”

1
Text Only
Clinton
  • Trio of Queens earn honors ELDRIDGE -- Three members of the Clinton High softball team were named to the All-Mississippi Athletic Conference honorable mention squad Monday.Junior Cara Brewer and sophomores Sydney Davis and Jenna Stremlow received the honors.Brewer, a catcher-t

    July 22, 2014

  • Win completes 4-2 road trip for LumberKings LANSING, Mich. – One day after a walk-off home run spoiled an opportunity for a series win, the Clinton LumberKings responded with a 2-1 series-clinching victory over the host Lansing Lugnuts in a Monday Midwest League baseball matinee at Cooley Law

    July 22, 2014

  • Bice Nurses earn Daisy awards

    CLINTON — Two Clinton nurses recently earned Daisy awards.Mercy Medical Center nurses Jodie Atkinson and Kristen Bice earned the awards that is rewarded to extraordinary nurses. Atkinson began her career in nursing at Mercy Medical Center in 1995 on

    July 22, 2014 2 Photos

  • 7-22-14 15 or 17-Airborne tag A rally fit for Kings (with VIDEO)

    ELDRIDGE — It would have been easy for Clinton sophomore Nick Houzenga to be discouraged as he took the mound in the bottom of the first inning of the River Kings’ Class 4A substate semifinal against North Scott.After all, the Lancers had already bui

    July 22, 2014 4 Photos

  • 7-22-14 water 2 Rotary Club donation gets water to Haitians CLINTON — Nine Haitian communities now have the blessing of clean water due to the work of local Iowa Rotary clubs, including Clinton’s, and the charity Water for Life.Water for Life Directors Joy and Leon Miller have been drilling wells for years as

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • 7-22-14 Emily Evans 7 seek pageant crown CLINTON — The time has come for Miss Clinton County Brandy Herrington to pass her crown on to the next lucky contestant and this year the competition is thick.When the event commences on Saturday at the DeWitt Central Performing Arts Center, seven yo

    July 22, 2014 7 Photos

  • Second arbitration filing

    AFSCME union is the second this summer to file for arbitration against Clinton.

    July 21, 2014

  • Fire causes Vitale's closure

    Vitale's restaurant closed this afternoon, according to the business's Facebook page, citing a small fire for the cause of the closing.

    July 21, 2014

  • kyle.jpg Voices lifted for Habitat (with VIDEOS)

    CLINTON — Members of the community came out in droves Sunday afternoon to attend a Concert for a Cause, a first-time event benefiting Habitat of Humanity of Clinton County.More than 70 voices joined together in the Vernon Cook Theater for the CHS Alu

    July 21, 2014 5 Photos

  • GM looks to combat decreasing revenue CLINTON — The new general manager of the Clinton Wild Rose Casino and Resort hopes to utilize programs and giveaways to counteract decreasing revenue.During the Clinton County Development Association meeting last week, General Manager Travis Dvorak r

    July 21, 2014

Clinton Herald Photos


Browse, buy and submit pictures with our photo site.

Facebook