The Honorable David Widmaier is a justice court judge and magistrate in Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona, first elected to the position in 2000. A graduate of CalSouthern's Master of Science in Law program (magna cum laude, 2011), Judge Widmaier has been re-elected four times and twice named Arizona Judge of the Year (2009, 2012) by the Arizona Justice of the Peace Association.
He serves on numerous Arizona Supreme Court committees including the Arizona Judicial Council (Arizona's highest judicial body other than the Arizona Supreme Court itself) and is the Arizona representative to the National Judges Association. Judge Widmaier also serves as a faculty member and mentor judge for the Arizona Judicial College. He has served as president of the Arizona Justice of the Peace Association for five years.
Judge Widmaier, who served honorably in the United States Marine Corps at the end of the Vietnam war, is extremely active in the Pinetop-Lakeside community, where he lives with his wife. A father of three and a grandfather, he is an avid golfer and alpine skier.
Recently, Judge Widmaier graciously took time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions about his career, the law, his CalSouthern experience—and his unusual path to the bench.
CalSouthern: Was the law something that had always interested you?
Judge David Widmaier: On some level, yes, but the interest was dormant for a while. My initial career was as a photojournalist. I worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for a small newspaper, then went to graduate school in Wales to earn an advanced degree in photojournalism.
However, after I returned home, I decided against moving to a major metropolitan area, which would have been required to do the magazine work that I was interested in. Instead, I bought a portrait photography business and opened a picture-framing shop. I operated these businesses for almost a decade. I never really developed a passion for it, but had a young family and needed to support them.
I knew a judge in town quite well, and around the turn of the millennium, he was preparing to retire. He encouraged me to run for the position, thinking I had the right demeanor for the job. My interest in the law was rekindled and I decided to run. When I won the election—I have to admit I was somewhat surprised to have won—I found myself at the start of the new career.
CalSouthern: Some readers might be surprised to learn that you don't have to be an attorney to become a judge. Is that commonly the case?
Judge Widmaier: Twenty-five states allow non-attorney judges, and the practice is especially common in the southern and western states. All states permit the use of non-lawyers as hearing officers and in similar roles.
CalSouthern: What types of cases do you preside over?
Judge Widmaier: I preside over a justice of the peace court, which is essentially a county court. I hear civil traffic violations and criminal traffic cases, as well as misdemeanor cases (anything from disorderly conduct to shoplifting and misdemeanor assaults). Often, I'll do preliminary hearings on felony cases. I also have jurisdiction over small claims disputes as well as civil lawsuits of up to $10,000 at issue.
CalSouthern: What do you find most enjoyable or rewarding about your work as a judge? And conversely, what are the most challenging aspects?
Judge Widmaier: Being located in a rural area, I know most people in our small town. I'll run into people on the sidewalk or in the grocery store and occasionally they'll tell me they liked the way I handled a case or mention that I treated a friend fairly or perhaps that I helped out a son or daughter in some way. These exchanges are very gratifying.
The politics is a downside. By “politics,” I don't mean the challenges presented by having to run in an election. I am referring more to the challenges of working for a city or county. In government, every year there are budgetary issues you have to face. And frankly, sometimes it can feel as though everyone is in it for themselves, fighting for every dime they can get.
The other thing that comes to mind is dealing with some of the felony cases for which we conduct preliminary hearings. I've seen cases that are absolutely heinous—murders, child sex offenses, rapes. These things will shake you. The child sexual molestation cases for me are especially tough, as I am sure they are for everyone involved. You just can't fathom that people are capable of these acts. It's especially troubling when you consider that these things are happening in your own small town.
CalSouthern: In your opinion, what are some of the essential qualities associated with being an effective judge?
Judge Widmaier: Demeanor and comportment are at the top of the list. Judges are human and we don't always make a perfect ruling or perhaps even the correct ruling. But we can consistently treat people well. If people believe that they've had their day in court and have been treated respectfully and fairly, you'll have a successful career.
The interest and ability to conduct research are also very important. It's not necessary to have every aspect of the law committed to memory. However, you need to have the ability and initiative to seek out the answers to those issues you aren't entirely sure about—which inevitably arise. Similarly, I think the best judges have the curiosity, resourcefulness and humility to reach out other judges who they respect and who can provide guidance or a trusted opinion.
Surprisingly, there are some judges out there that have a tendency to resist looking into issues very deeply.
CalSouthern: You've been named Arizona Judge of the Year twice, you've received numerous other honors and you've been selected to serve on a variety of prestigious committees. These honors make it clear you're at the top of your profession. Why, then, did you decide to return to school, enrolling in CalSouthern's MSL program?
Judge Widmaier: I am always looking to educate myself and to do everything I can to be more effective and confident in what I do. Also, the degree—and more importantly, the knowledge—helps me, a non-attorney, command the respect of the litigators that come through my court. And I say this not from an ego perspective, but rather because it helps me do my job more effectively.
Also, I love to learn and am deeply interested in all aspects of the law.
CalSouthern: Has your MSL degree added to your judicial tool kit?
Judge Widmaier: Sure. Actually, few days go by that I couldn't cite something that I learned in the program. With a broad exposure to the law—including areas that I don't see on a day-to-day basis in my court—I am now able to spot issues I might not have otherwise, and I can use that base knowledge to help me research the issue further to come to a conclusion. I can consider issues in a fuller, richer context. My courses in property law and immigration have been helpful in this regard—family law, as well. These are areas in which I have already received training of course, but there's a difference between attending a three-day seminar and taking an entire master's-level course on the topic.
Even the courses that are not relevant to my work—international law, for example—were still extremely interesting and have given me a more well-rounded base of legal knowledge.
CalSouthern: You have a busy, stressful job, and yet you are involved in numerous charitable causes and other community work. Why is this so important to you?
Judge Widmaier: I grew up in a big city (Phoenix) before moving to Flagstaff and then to even smaller communities, first in North Dakota and then back here in Arizona. I've found that I really love the small-town atmosphere. In my opinion, in order to enhance or make the most of that atmosphere, you would want to join the Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce or work with local charities. To me, it's a big part of what makes life in a smaller community so rich.
CalSouthern: Could you share some of your plans for the future?
Judge Widmaier: I come up for re-election this year and I will run for another four-year term and then assess things after that. For now, I have no desire to pursue anything else. I still enjoy my work very much; it's a great life.