Gempeler remembered as intelligent, compassionate jurist

Circuit Court Judge Mark Gempeler talks to attorneys in the sexual assault trial of former Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura in late January 2001. He spent 26 years serving in the Waukesha County Circuit Court.


Gempeler passed away last week at age 72.

Retired Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Kathryn W. Foster said her career was linked to Gempeler’s in a couple of ways, in following in his footsteps and in learning from the examples he, along with Judge Neal Nettesheim, set.

“Mark and I have this interesting history in that I got his job in the District Attorney’s Office when he left to go to private practice. Then he left private practice to become judge. I’ve always felt career-wise I kind of followed him around. I succeeded him as chief judge. In each of those scenarios and history I learned a lot. I probably learned the most when he was on bench and I was a prosecutor practicing in front of him,” Foster said.

Those lessons included proven ways of interacting with jurors and treating all parties with fairness, she said.

“Mark was very definitely a prepared judge, an intelligent judge, a compassionate judge and a courteous judge,” Foster added.

Gempeler’s career saw him work as an assistant district attorney and U.S. attorney before he became the youngest corporation counsel in county history at age 30. He was appointed in 1983 as judge by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl to replace Ness Flores, whom Earl had named to the Public Service Commission. Gempeler won re-election in 1984, 1990, 1996 and 2002.

He served as chief judge of the Third Judicial Administrative District, as well. He was named Judge of the Year for 2004 by the Wisconsin State Bar Bench and Bar Committee and, according to the State Bar, was involved in developing the jury instructions used in state courts, and was active in both state and national Judicial Colleges.

“I never had opposition, which I think is kind of a tribute to the lawyers and the public of Waukesha County in that they were not so partisan that they tried to knock me off the bench simply because I had a Democratic background,” Gempeler told The Freeman in 2008.

Perhaps the highest-profile case Gempeler presided over was that involving the sex assault allegations leveled against former Green Bay Packers player Mark Chmura, who was acquitted. Gempeler told The Freeman in 2008, “I enjoyed that experience. I don’t know that I want to go through it again, but it was an educational experience for me.”

“He treated it like any other court case. He wasn’t fazed by the national media,” his son Steve Gempeler said Wednesday. “He just ran it like it was your average Joe as opposed to a very famous Green Bay Packer.”

Retired Circuit Court Judge J. Mac Davis, who also was a contemporary of Gempeler’s, said Gempeler handled that trial properly but also generally carried himself in court with the demeanor of a judge — a professional, calm, judicious yet courteous approach that never wavered, even as he battled his first wife’s health problems and his own. Back problems made it so Gempeler often stood in court toward the end of his career.

Foster added that Gempeler’s Democratic political background made no difference in Gempeler’s performance in an officially nonpartisan occupation. Davis said Gempeler’s appointment by a Democrat to a seat in historically red Waukesha County wasn’t as surprising then as it would seem to be today, an era when judges both here and in other places who were appointed by one politician were voted out later, after a change in the executive mansion.

But the fact that Gempeler won re-election repeatedly, as well as the Judge of the Year award, demonstrated what people thought of Judge Gempeler, Davis said.

“Mark was always well— regarded and capable and knew what he was doing. Mark was a good judge. He got his work done. I think he was well-regarded for his ability,” Davis said.

Foster said, “I think he was in part responsible for elevating the respect that in general the Waukesha County judiciary was afforded when he was on bench and that still continues to this day so we owe him a debt of gratitude in that regard.”

Outside the courtroom, Gempeler was friendly, sociable, and known for a great sense of humor. He also enjoyed travel, particularly to Ireland, Steve Gempeler said. But above all else, he was a family man, supporting his late first wife, Charla, through her illness and being there for his children, sons Steve and Matthew.

“Growing up, my father, no matter how busy with his career, was always active in his two sons’ lives. He rarely, if ever, missed any of my soccer games or my brother’s Boy Scouts events,” Steve Gempeler said.

Gempeler is survived by his sons Steve Mark (Uma) Gempeler and Matthew George (Johanna) Gempeler, both of Washington, D.C.; and his wife, Barbara Johnson of Oconomowoc; as well as sisters Jane Gempeler of Phoenix, Ariz., and Carole Claus of Northridge, Calif.

A private family gathering is being planned.