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.”