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Iowa’s longest-serving magistrate to retire

One wintry Fort Dodge morning, Bill Thatcher was shoveling snow out front of his law office on North Ninth Street when a car skidded to a stop on the other side of the street. A large man climbed out and walked directly toward him.

“My initial thought was that this was not going to have a happy ending,” he recalled. “My yellow snow shovel was not going to be much protection. He walked right towards me, pointed his hand at me and said, ‘Are you Judge Thatcher?’ I wanted to say no, are you kidding? He’s inside having a cup of coffee. But I said yes. He took off his glove and held out a huge hand and came up to me and said I want to thank you. I gratefully took off my glove and shook his hand and asked him why. He said that a year ago I had put him in jail for 30 days. He said the first 10 days in jail he was so mad at me he just wanted to get out and beat me up. The second 10 days, he said he felt sorry for himself. And the third 10 days, he decided that he never would do anything which would put him back in jail. He was released from jail and reconciled with his wife, got his job back and stopped using alcohol and drugs. He put his life back together again. And he said he wanted to thank me for getting him started on that path.”

They talked for a short time before the man returned to his car and drove away, but Thatcher said he was so startled that he cannot remember the man’s name.

“That incident and success story kept me going for a long, long time,” he said. “People usually don’t thank you for helping them in the legal system. I do get letters and thank you notes every now and then but very infrequently.”

William J. Thatcher has served as a Webster County magistrate judge since his initial appointment July 1, 1973 – except for a four-year break when he was Webster County attorney. He concludes his career of judicial public service on Sept. 5 when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 72, leaving as the longest-serving of the 140 magistrate judges in Iowa.

The third-generation Fort Dodge native is one of three part-time Webster County magistrates – Steve Kersten, who was appointed in 1992, and Bill Habhab, who was appointed in 2012. are the others. They work one week on, two weeks off – serving 24/7 for a full week as a magistrate before returning to their law practices.

Magistrates handle initial appearances for every criminal case. As the first rung of the law ladder, they hold trials for all simple misdemeanors, handling such offenses as speeding, public intoxication, domestic assault, theft, as well as trials on small claims (cases up to $6,500), uninsured car accidents, unpaid cash rent and construction claims. They also handle commitment hearings for substance abuse and mental health – cases Thatcher calls the most difficult. They issue search warrants and arrest warrants for the police, sheriff’s office and state patrol.

When he is not wearing magistrate’s robes, Thatcher partners with Sarah Livingston, a fellow University of Iowa Law graduate, in the Thatcher and Livingston LLC law firm. His wife, Carol Thatcher, and Sheryl Reed are legal assistants, and Cathy Mickelson is a part-time legal assistant.

Katrina O’Brien is the court attendant (administrative assistant) for the three magistrates.

Thatcher plans to continue to practice law, with no immediate plans to retire.

“When I go over there and walk into the courtroom, my friends say I become a different person,” Thatcher said. “With that black robe on, you have to judge someone: Is that person telling the truth or lying, what’s the motive, what really happened here? When Tom Bice retired (as a district court judge), he said the most difficult part of the job is sentencing a criminal case. You only have one chance to sentence someone. You have to be able to look at that person, you have to determine if this person may need a slight talking to or a harsh admonition. Sentencing is the most important thing we do.”

Nearly half a century after it happened, Thatcher said that in his first year as a magistrate, he sentenced a man “and I think I got it all wrong, I know his name, someday I want to find him and apologize…I found him guilty and found out later that I shouldn’t have believed a witness.”

Thatcher and his sisters – Barbara Thatcher Lyall of Woman Lake in northern Minnesota and Jody Thatcher Cook of Indian Wells, California – are the children of Bernice and Bill Thatcher. Their father was a surgeon who started his medical practice in 1939 and was joined a year later by his brother Donald, an internist, along with their sister Mildred Thatcher Warren, a registered nurse and office assistant. Their father, Orville Thatcher, was a banker with the Webster County National Bank from 1914-22.

Both brothers joined the Army during World War II, but only one came back. Bill was a surgeon in field hospitals behind the lines in North Africa, Sicily and Anzio. But Don, a flight surgeon stationed in England, was killed when he volunteered to go with a B-24 crew that was shot down on a bombing run over France in late June 1944; it was the flight crew’s last mission before they were to return home. Bill returned to his medical practice in Fort Dodge and was joined by Drs. Paul Stitt and Hoyt Allen in the Thatcher, Stitt and Allen practice. Dr. Thatcher died in 1980 and his wife died in 2008.

Magistrate Bill Thatcher is married to Carol Anderson, who he met in their senior year at Fort Dodge Senior High. They were married in 1968 while attending Iowa State University – Carol earning a degree in home economics education and Bill a degree in industrial administration (later, the Ivy College of Business). Carol taught for three years “and put me through law school” at the University of Iowa, Thatcher said. Bill and Carol have two children – Amy, a sales rep for a specialty pharmacy who lives in Denver, and Scott, a corporate pilot who lives with his wife Duree, and their children Lily, 16, and Charlie, 14, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Duree’s brother, Darren Driscoll, is Webster County attorney. Scott is the third generation of his family to be a pilot, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

Thatcher’s pathway to law started with a summer job in Minnesota when he was 17 years old.

Thatcher worked for three summers for a boat dealership at Woman Lake in Longville, Minnesota – where his parents had a cabin (and where Thatcher and his wife still have a residence.) He was the only person in the shop over the noon hour one day when “a tall distinguished guy walked in and said he wanted to buy a fishing boat.” The man, Bill Schrampfer, was the first head of the Department of Industrial Administration at Iowa State and learned Thatcher planned to attend school there for a degree in agricultural business. Schrampfer, an Iowa Law graduate, would be his adviser.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Thatcher said. “He decided I should go to law school. He gradually moved me to being interested in law – I would have never gone to law school if dad hadn’t got me that summer job and I hadn’t sold that boat.”

Thatcher worked as a law student intern in the summer of 1972 for County Attorney Louie Beisser, who would later become a district court judge. Back then, Iowa had municipal court judges, police court judges and justices of the peace. But the state Legislature created the Legislature Court Unification Law that became effective July 1, 1973 – the same date that Thatcher became a Webster County magistrate judge.

“I am the only remaining magistrate who started out with the new law,” Thatcher said.

“I had always wanted to come back to Fort Dodge and open my own law practice and this allowed me to do that because it (magistrate judge) was a part-time position. It was a great way to start my practice – criminal law and civil law – everything fit perfectly. A good friend of mine was head of drug cases and wanted me to come to Chicago as an assistant U.S. attorney. That was exciting for someone 24 years old – this would be near, But I’m a small-town boy and I was just not comfortable moving to Chicago. Carol and I had a baby daughter, Fort Dodge seemed like a better answer. I think I made the right decision.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down – with the court systems being no exception. They reopened in mid-July with cautionary procedures in place.

“As a magistrate, we had done everything by telephone – all the initial appearances. I talked to each defendant, while they’re sitting in jail, tell them their rights, assign an attorney for them. We have built up a huge backlog of trials and we’re just starting to hold those trials – and for the next foreseeable months, try to whittle down the number of cases. Everyone has to wear a mask. There are certain areas where you can sit, we keep people apart, limit the number who can be in the courtroom. We’re trying now to get every case done in 20 minutes. It has forced us to be more efficient with our time. I missed not being able to look at every defendant in the courtroom. I read the reports, but I’m an old-fashioned guy, I like to be able to look at someone, look in their eyes, read their body language, respond to my questions. I think we all erred on the side of caution…we may be more lenient in letting people out of jail than before because we’re more aware we don’t want people sitting in jail spreading this disease.”

Thatcher said applications have been taken for his position but the nominating commission has decided not to fill it immediately and will reconsider doing so in early December.

“The court system has changed dramatically in the last 47 years,” Thatcher said. “It is more formal now and more responsive to individual rights. The Iowa judicial branch is more independent from the legislative and executive branches than in the past. All in all, we have a better court system than in the past. Iowans can be very proud of the integrity and independence of their courts. That may sound like a political ad but it is my personal observation.”

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