Judge Jay Wisman was sometimes gruff, sometimes gentle. In his Arlington courtroom, he meted out justice but also gave second chances. Away from work, he was an artist, a gardener and a lover of opera.
Retired after 37 years as presiding judge of Snohomish County District Court’s Cascade Division in Arlington, Wisman died June 11 in Vancouver, Washington. He had gone there for a family member’s graduation, and died surrounded by loved ones at a Vancouver hospital. He was 79.
His memorial service is scheduled for noon Saturday at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Snohomish.
Born in Snohomish on May 21, 1939, Wisman lived in the Stanwood area with his wife of 50 years. He is also survived by his daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters.
“You always knew where you stood with Jay. He was upfront,” said Judge Steven Clough, of the District Court’s Evergreen Division in Monroe. “He was firm but compassionate. He really believed in probation, in trying to rehabilitate folks.”
Clough, 71, described Wisman as “my mentor judge,” someone he turned to for advice when he first came to the bench in Monroe. “He was very good to me about that,” said Clough, a District Court judge for 40 years.
Wisman, who had previously practiced law in Everett, was appointed to Cascade District Court in 1978. He served until 2015, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.
He attended schools in Snohomish and Everett before going to Concordia Academy in Portland, Oregon, where he graduated from high school. He had nearly completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington when he enlisted in the Army. A German speaker, he served in military intelligence in Berlin. Discharged in 1964, he finished his UW degree and went on the University of Idaho’s College of Law.
Clough met Wisman in Moscow, Idaho, in September 1970. “It was my first day of law school. He was emptying his locker. He gave me his law dictionary,” Clough said. “After graduation, I came back to Snohomish County and renewed my friendship with Jay.”
Bruce Keithly, a retired Snohomish attorney, said Wisman was kind, knowledgeable and reasonable. “I do know for certain that it would require more patience than I have to do the District Court judge job,” said Keithly, who also recalled Wisman’s off-work interests, as an opera fan and grower of an impressive dahlia garden.
A self-taught artist, Wisman painted with watercolors, oils and acrylics. He created artwork using dyes on silk.
His time on the Arlington bench began after Robert Bibb, later a Superior Court Judge, and Richard Bailey served there part time.
Wisman was Cascade District Court’s first full-time judge, said Jill Koett. She retired as Wisman’s court administrator in 2002 after 27 years there.
“I respected the man and I will forever. Officers respected him and jail personnel respected him,” Koett said. She has five of the judge’s “just lovely” paintings in her Arlington home, including one of roses she requested “to match my couch.”
At work, Wisman had a word of the day. “He’d expect us to know it, the meaning, and to use it,” Koett said. “Some were easy, some were hard.”
Lynn McCormick McCoy, of Marysville, worked 18 years with Wisman as a probation officer.
“People feared him because he was tough if they didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” McCoy said. “They knew there were consequences. But he was the first to give a second chance. If I told him somebody had messed up but were really trying to turn things around, he would do anything in his power to help.”
Wisman also helped his staff feel valued and appreciated, McCoy said.
“He had a sometimes fiery disposition. He was, underneath it, a gentle soul,” said Steven Peiffle, an attorney with the Bailey, Duskin & Peiffle firm in Arlington. Also Arlington’s city attorney, Peiffle was often in Wisman’s courtroom as a young lawyer.
“He did a really nice job of helping younger lawyers navigate the courtroom process,” Peiffle said. “I think he took particular pleasure when his actions on the bench helped people turn their lives around.”
One 2014 case before Wisman was more high-profile than most. He sentenced Kevin Hulten, onetime aide to former Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, to serve five days with a Skagit County work crew and pay a $1,500 fine.
Hulten has pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence — downloading a data-wiping program onto a county-owned laptop — during a criminal investigation, a misdemeanor. The case was tied to secretive efforts to target Reardon’s political rivals.
Judge Anthony Howard, of the District Court’s Everett Division, previously was a commissioner in Cascade District Court. “I will always remember how welcoming he was to me and my family when I became the commissioner in 2011,” Howard said in a Facebook post after Wisman’s death. “He was an absolutely fascinating and brilliant human being.”
McCoy said Wisman was a man of character, personally and professionally. “I never heard an off-color remark. I never had a question about his ethics,” she said. “Honorable wasn’t just a title. It truly described him.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@herald net.com.
A memorial service for retired Judge Jay Wisman is scheduled for noon Saturday at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, 9225 212th St. SE, Snohomish.