Off the bench
Looking back on his tenure in the Iowa judicial system, William Ostlund can’t say exactly what got him interested in pursuing a legal career.
“It just kind of unfolded for me,” he said. “I’ve always just been kind of a people person. It was a profession that dealt with people.”
Ostlund was a district court judge in the 2nd Judicial District of Iowa, which includes Webster County, until his retirement from the bench two weeks ago.
His retirement was mandatory; once he turned 72, Iowa law required him to step down from the bench.
Ostlund served as a judge for 35 years. He began as a magistrate judge in Greene County, where he lives. After 11 years in that role he was named a district court judge.
“I served as a district court judge for 24 years and three months,” Ostlund said.
As he reflected on his judicial tenure, Ostlund said there are many facets of being a judge that he enjoyed.
“The people, the lawyers, the administration,” he said. “Even the litigants.”
He presided over countless hearings.
“I pretty much saw it all,” he said. “You can’t make up the truth.”
By his side throughout his tenure was Nancy Timmons, his longtime court reporter.
“She’s as important a part of my judicial career as anybody,” Ostlund said. “She was my court reporter. Between the two of us, we had a combined total of 80 years.”
In fact, Ostlund said Timmons is the longest-serving court reporter in Iowa history.
“I leaned on her a lot,” he said. “I trusted her.”
Working with Timmons, Ostlund said there’s quite a bit he found rewarding about judicial service.
“It starts with the many friendships that Nancy and I gained over the years,” he said. “The reward that, on occasion, you knew you made a difference.”
There’s one court where Ostlund said that’s especially true.
“And that was particularly true in juvenile court, which I did all the way to my retirement,” he said. “My last day of court was a juvenile court day.”
Ostlund said juvenile court has its own challenges.
“You’re dealing with families and children,” he said. “And you sometimes catch them early enough that you can make a difference, and sometimes these kids don’t become adult offenders. It requires a lot of patience, and the belief that people can change.”
It might surprise some people to learn that judges, while they have to make many decisions, sometimes struggle with finding the right one, he said.
“We don’t always know the answer. It’s a learning experience from Day One.”
The decisions a judge ultimately makes often never leave them, he said.
“You can’t just walk away from them and forget about them.”
In his 35 years on the bench, Ostlund said there is much that he has learned.
“I think the years have given me a couple thoughts that are important,” he said. “No. 1, I’m truly impressed with the quality and the civility of Iowa lawyers, both men and women. I’ll put them up against anybody, and I’ve seen them up against most anybody; the genius of the jury system, and the wisdom of Iowa jurors.
“You put those three together, and you’ve got a pretty good mechanism to do justice.”
Ostlund isn’t the first judge in the 2nd Judicial District to retire this month. Judge Thomas Bice also retired two weeks ago. Coincidentally, Ostlund and Bice’s 72nd birthdays were just days apart, and both ended up retiring on the same day.
However, while Bice is continuing to serve as a senior judge, Ostlund is fully retired.
Instead, he plans on spending time with his family. He has relatives on both coasts and a grandson who lives out of state.
“I’d like to spend time with all of them,” he said. “And I’d like to go back to some of the places I’ve worked on a ‘because I want to’ basis.”
As a judge, Ostlund traveled to all 13 counties in District 2B, which is the portion of the 2nd Judicial District in which he presided.
“We are the largest geographic district, so it meant a lot of travel.”
Ostlund, who grew up in Webster City, even presided over Hamilton County.
On his wish list is a financially-secure future for the judicial system.
“We’ve been overlooked longer than we should have,” he said.
Ostlund commended 2nd Judicial District Chief Judge Kurt Wilke and Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady for doing all they can to keep the judicial system going despite financial setbacks.
“I have so much admiration for Kurt and Judge Cady, because there have been days where I thought they were doing their job with duct tape and baling wire,” he said. “We’ve had to lay off staff. Expenses have been cut. But yet, we’ve got the job done.”