Originally Posted Online: Jan. 01, 2013, 4:12 pm
Last Updated: Jan. 02, 2013, 11:34 am

Judge Stengel steps away from the bench

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By Lisa Hammer, rlhammer@qconline.com

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Photo: Lisa Hammer
Retiring Judge Charles "Casey" Stengel takes down his picture of the Snake River as he packs up in judge's chambers in the Henry County courthouse.

CAMBRIDGE -- After 16-plus years on the bench in the 14th Judicial Circuit, Judge Charles "Casey" Stengel has retired. His last day was Monday.

The 59-year-old judge noted he was eligible for full retirement a year ago, but worked another year before deciding his time had come. Not that he will sit at home and collect stamps or do crossword puzzles, he said.

"The term 'retirement' is so loose," he said. "I'm still young enough to do other stuff.

"I'm going to take some time off and look at various options -- haven't decided where I'm going to land or what I'm going to do," Judge Stengel said."I've always enjoyed being in the courtroom. I want to keep myself busy."

Judge Stengel said trials have been what he likes most about court.

"You have to listen and you have to keep an open mind. That's what you have to do," he said. "You have to follow the law. I tell juries they have to follow the law, even if you don't like it."

After law school at DePaul, Judge Stengel worked in the public defender's office in Rock Island County for two years, then was with the state's attorney's office for approximately eight years. He became a circuit court judge April 15, 1996.

He handled nothing but criminal cases when he first became a judge, then divorces for three years and then three years of civil law. Since moving to Cambridge, he has seen a little of everything.

Judge Stengel said years ago, when he started as a lawyer, there were very few people in society who were felons compared to now.

"It really keeps the lawyers busy," he said.

The judge noted that, even in the worst cases where a death is involved, feelings are generally under control by the time cases come to the courtroom.

"You don't see the emotional outburst," Judge Stengel said. "We deal with tragedies and there's no way to ever rectify what has happened. You can't bring people back. It's really, really sad.

"At least I don't have to deal with what arriving police officers have to deal with," he added. "By the time I deal with it, it's more sanitized. There's been a lot of tragedy."

The judge said that, in 17 years, only two of his bench trial decisions have been reversed. In one case, a law was changed after the trial and before the appellate court made its ruling. The best thing about higher courts affirming his rulings, he said, is that victims don't have to go through the trials a second time.

Court is a serious place, but thanks to his buoyant personality, Judge Stengel's courtroom has had many lighter moments. With his booming voice, Judge Stengel cheerfully acknowledged many who showed up in court -- from attorneys to police officers to courthouse deputies to bailiffs.

He also might take note of Henry County State's Attorney Terry Patton sitting at the prosecutor's table and, feigning great surprise, say, "Mr. Patton! What brings YOU here today? I mean, I know you're the state's attorney, but what are you here for?"

Mr. Patton -- who recently brought his daughter and first-year law student, Lindsey, to the judge's courtroom -- said people in Cambridge have enjoyed having Judge Stengel around.

"He's a good judge to appear in front of," Mr. Patton said. "He knows the law and he's fair to both sides. He listens and his rulings are well-thought out. We're happy for him, but we're going to miss him."

Critics of judges who once wrote to newspapers now also vent their feelings by commenting online about the media's take of court proceedings. Judge Stengel said he didn't let public criticism bother him, noting the law has a preference for probation rather than prison, even though the public might want harsher sentences.

"It's just part of the territory of being a judge," he said of criticism. He added people really need to be in the courtroom to see what was going on to make a fair evaluation.

He declined to discuss his major cases, explaining that would just opens old wounds. But he did say the five-hour sentencing for Kristin Holzman of Geneseo in June 2012 likely broke a record.

"Especially for how hot it was, considering the air-conditioning broke," Judge Stengel said. Ms. Holzman was found guilty of theft for pretending to have cancer; she is appealing her conviction and sentence.

Judge Stengel's nickname comes from a distant relative; his great-grandfather and Casey Stengel's grandfather were brothers. Judge Stengel, however, said he was not an athlete in high school or college and only came to exercise when he was 47 and his doctor told him he was overweight.

The judge said he began with walking before running, biking and swimming in triathlons. Almost daily, he rode his bike to the Rock Island County Courthouse -- a 16-mile roundtrip. While he said the commute to Cambridge has limited the time to keep up his regimen, he still swims.Getting back in shape, he said, is one of his immediate retirement goals.

Then what? Time will tell.

"It's been a very interesting job," Judge Stengel said. "I'm very lucky that almost every day something new happens. I'm very blessed to get the job."