Sunday, July 3, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

The tenant farmer’s son


The jury sits attentively. Young and old. Casual and dressed. White and one African-American. They watch the lawyers. They glance discreetly at the defendant. And then they look to the front. The judge is seated on a raised platform. Black robe cleaned and pressed. It’s nearly time.

District Court Judge Robert Hutchison sits with his head down, reading documents. His left fist rests against his cheek. Glasses perched. His long forehead smooth and calm above his dark twinkling eyes. He takes a breath, slips his glasses off, and turns to the jury.

“Good morning.”

And another day of trial begins at the Polk County Courthouse.

“We lived on a farm. My dad was a tenant farmer. My first two years, I went to a one-room schoolhouse. I had two classmates in my grade. I vividly remember the pony shed in back because many of my schoolmates rode their ponies to school. I lived about a mile away, so of course my story is I walked through the snow uphill every day.”


Judge Hutchison doesn’t crack a smile at this last small exaggeration. And although facts are delivered dispassionately, you know there’s always going to be a twist. Popping his own balloon is his favorite sport.

“1990 I became a judge. I was sworn in the same day Judge Joel Novak had his heart attack. There are many people who think that was not coincidental.”

Opening statements are made to the jury. Olu Salami, from the Polk County Attorney’s Office, loudly kicks the wood floor, demonstrating to the jury the blows inflicted by the defendant to the victim. Everyone watches and listens. Defense attorney Rich Bartolomei, when it’s his turn, disagrees that any kicks occurred at all. “It just didn’t happen,” he argues.

Fifty-two years earlier, Judge Hutchison was a young student at Carlisle High School.

“I had wrestled at Carlisle my freshman year. I held the record for being the person pinned the fastest for years. I could never understand how someone could beat it. How could you get pinned faster than I did?”

Then his life took a dramatic turn.

“I started carrying newspapers. Back at that time, the Register had a program with Phillips Andover and Phillips Exeter Academies. If you were a good newspaper carrier, they would introduce you to the school. The recruiters would come out here once a year. You then could pursue it on your own.”

Judge Hutchison was young for his age. But he went to meet the recruiters, he was interested, he applied, and he was accepted.

“I went off for grades 10, 11 and 12. To Andover in Massachusetts. I’d been to Mexico once when I was 4, and to Minnesota for family vacations. Otherwise, I had never been out of Iowa.”

And so it went. Andover for prep school. Harvard for college. The University of Iowa for law school. Of course, Judge Hutchison’s description of these times all follow a similar disclaimer — “God knows how, but I did really well there.”

The victim is on the witness stand. He tells Salami of the injuries he’d received by the defendant. Hard blows. Bartolomei goes after the victim on cross-examination. “Didn’t you give different stories in the past?” The fight is on.

Judge Hutchison was a successful lawyer, but it wasn’t enough for him. He wanted something else.

“The truth is, if you want to make a difference in people’s lives, your opportunity to do that is far greater as a district court judge than as a lawyer.”

So, a district court judge he became. And the differences he began to make surprised even him.

“My single most rewarding experience as a judge was being in Drug Court. That was so antithetical to me. I begged the chief judge to not send me. His response was, ‘It’s your turn, and you’re going.’ ”

Judge Hutchison softly smiles.

“Drug Court was special because even though the success rate is about 50 percent, for those 50 percent you are the first positive role model they’ve ever had in their life. It’s like having kids all over again. To see someone who has done nothing but screw up their entire life, now they have a driver’s license, they’re working, they have a GED, in many cases they’ve reconciled with family members. That is really, really special.”

Is this tough old judge a romantic at heart?

“I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of days I’ve been bored in 26 years. I know this is going to sound corny. I remind myself every day when I go to work, whatever I am doing, it is the most important case to the people there. I may be unsuccessful, but I try to be on my ‘A’ game every day. You just can’t do that unless you’re involved. I’m a pretty active judge on the bench.”

No kidding.

The judge chastises Bartolomei for his method of impeachment. He then prods Salami to clarify how he’s going to use the video presentation. Judge as umpire.

And how does your wife fare in this quixotic search to make a difference?

“I really don’t mean for this to again sound corny, but from my perspective we are more in love now than we were 44 years ago. We continue to find new things that we like to do. My hope is that we get a long time retired together. We’ll see how that works out. As you well know, there’s no guarantees.”

A hopeless romantic.

The trial ends for the day. The jurors file out. The Constitutional mandate for a fair trial once more fulfilled until tomorrow.  joes 11.19

I sit alone in chambers waiting for Judge Hutchison to take care of other matters in the courtroom. I think of the multitude of decisions he makes every day as he rules on cases and referees lawyers and facilitates the truth. Decisions that affect your life, my life and the stranger’s life. On the wall, framed, is a quote that can be clearly seen when you sit in the judge’s chair.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing — Edmund Burke 1795.”

By the way, Judge Hutchison retires in a month or so. Twenty-six years of taking care of our divorces, our civil disputes and our criminal cases. Twenty-six years of bringing his “A” game. As for the triumph of evil? I don’t think so today. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:


  1. Barb Kaldenberg says:

    Wonderful article for us to see–well deserved Judge Robert Hutchison

  2. dody says:

    the way this is written, by the time i was a third of the way through it, i was wondering if it was a story with the judge as the defendant… its pretty confusing since there is no preamble or conclussion, just random writing

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