Judge was a public servant, courthouse mentor

A social worker who pursued his love of the law, McCormack remembered as being kind, fair during his 30 years on bench
Ozaukee Press staff

Retired Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Joseph D. McCormack was the quintessential public servant and a mentor to those he worked with in the court system.

He started his career as a social worker, then fulfilled a dream by attending Marquette University Law School and earning his law degree.

Mr. McCormack worked as assistant district attorney in Ozaukee County, then became the county’s corporation counsel and, when the third circuit court branch was created in 1978, he was elected to that position — a job he held for more than 30 years.

“He was a force to be reckoned with,” his longtime court reporter Kathy Jagow said. “He was very fair and very smart. He really had insight into people. 

“He was good with complicated civil cases. I think he did enjoy the challenge of unraveling the facts and figuring it all out.

“He was larger than life.”

Mr. McCormack, a longtime Grafton resident, died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease at Lawlis Hospice in Mequon on Wednesday, Oct. 19. He was 79.

Mr. McCormack’s wife Jackie said her husband loved being a judge and was always cognizant of the fact that when people appeared before him, it could be a life-changing moment for them.

“He handled everything from jaywalking to murders,” Mrs. McCormack said.

Among the most prominent cases Mr. McCormack presided over were the murder trials of Tom Kirsch and Dennis Marsh.

He most enjoyed adoption cases, his wife said.

“He said it was the only time everybody walked out of his courtroom happy,” Mrs. McCormack said.

“Judge McCormack had the ability to be compassionate and tough when the circumstances warranted it,” Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Sandy Williams, who served as an assistant prosecutor and district attorney before being elected to the bench, said.

“He would give the right person the break,” she said. “With other people, he was very stern. But he always held people accountable.

“I always enjoyed listening to his presentence discussions. He would have all these good reasons for what he would do.”

Mr. McCormack also had a way of relating to people that served him well, Mrs. Williams said. 

He could talk to someone convicted of drunken driving about the state’s drinking culture and how he understood the pressure people were under, she said. He would talk about the many things to do without alcohol, and the danger of drunken driving.

“Then the hammer would come down, and appropriately so,” Mrs. Williams said. “The person would say, ‘Yeah, I get it.’”

Mr. McCormack also had an amazing memory, Mrs. Williams said, noting there were times a 40-something-year-old man would be in court and the judge would ask, “‘Didn’t you appear before me when you were 15 or 16?’” she said. “I don’t know whose eyes would get bigger, theirs or mine. He had a great recall of people and their stories.”

Most of all, Judge McCormack “had a lot of common sense,” Ozaukee County Circuit  Judge Paul Malloy said. “And he didn’t mince words.”

Both Mr. Malloy and Mrs. Williams said they considered Judge McCormack their mentor, saying he was generous in sharing his wisdom with them.

“He wasn’t afraid, if I asked what I could do better, to tell me,” Mrs. Williams said. “And he knew people. He had a great BS detector, and he could cut right through it. 

“I think that’s because he had everyday experiences. He had a broad background dealing with all sorts of people. He didn’t have any airs about him, and he could relate to everyone.”

Mr. Malloy said Mr. McCormack wasn’t just his mentor as a judge but also as an assistant district attorney, helping him learn how to apply what he learned in law school to the courtroom.

“He would put things into context,” he said. “He was really a good judge, a good mentor and a good friend.”

Mr. McCormack ran an efficient courtroom, a habit he honed when he came into office and found a large backlog of cases, Mrs. Jagow said. But while he was efficient, he wasn’t punctual — Mr. Malloy said he operated on “Irish time” — a habit that annoyed several of the attorneys who appeared in his courtroom.

“He was always late, but he was always prepared,” Mrs. Jagow said. “He was all about getting the work done.”

But he was also a social man known for his roaring laugh and booming voice who enjoyed the people he worked with, she said, adding that she considered the judge “kind of a second father.”

Mr. McCormack was born in Milwaukee on July 16, 1940, the son of Joseph J. and Marion McCormack. 

He attended Immaculate Conception Grade School and graduated from Bay View High School in 1958.

He met Jacklyn Geach on a blind date.

“I went into my room that night and told my roommate I was going to marry that man,” she said.

Two weeks later, he proposed. The couple were married at St. Matthew’s Church in Green Bay on Aug. 18, 1962.

They moved to Grafton in 1973.

Mr. McCormack drove a forklift for American Motors while attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee part-time, graduating in 1968 with a degree in social work.

He became a social worker for Milwaukee County, serving as a protective services officer who worked primarily with children, Mr. Malloy said.

He entered Marquette University Law School in 1970. He accepted a position as assistant district attorney in Ozaukee County after graduating in 1973.

“He loved being a judge,” his wife said. “He liked the chance to apply the law to people.”

Mr. McCormack served as the county’s chief judge for a number of years before retiring in 2009.

He was a member of the Wisconsin State and Ozaukee County bar associations, the Ozaukee County Jail Literacy Advisory Board and the Grafton Lions Club.

Mr. McCormack enjoyed golfing and coached his youngest son Tim’s Grafton Little League team to the championship.

“That was one of the things he was most proud of,” his wife said.

He enjoyed traveling and visited more than 20 countries.

Judge McCormack is survived by his wife Jackie; sons Joseph E. (Kathy) of Oregon, Wis., and Timothy of Milwaukie, Ore.; and grandchildren Katelyn and Austin.

He is further survived by his sister Ruth (Tom) Klopf of Greenfield and brothers John of Greenfield, Robert (Sandra) of Wauwatosa, Tom of Shorewood and Pat (Brenda).

He was preceded in death by his parents and his sister Mary.

Mr. McCormack’s body was donated to the Medical College of Wisconsin for research.

A celebration of his life will be held in early 2020.



Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login