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'He was a good lawyer. He knew the law. He knew the subject'

--- Longtime court commissioner dies

Mike Heine/The Week

(PublishedSept. 27, 2007, 4:35 p.m.)

"You've just got to keep showing up," JoBeth Barrett said Monday of her husband Paul Barrett, a well-known Walworth County lawyer and longtime court commissioner.

A little more than a week ago, Paul, unfortunately, stopped showing up.

Paul died Sunday, Sept. 16, from complications after an unexpected heart attack suffered days earlier. He was 65.

Since 1984, JoBeth and Paul, who was legally blind but could see contrasting shades and could read large type with special glasses, presided over weekend and holiday bail hearings at the Walworth County Jail. On Thursdays, he handled small claims case.

"We would keep showing up. That's the thing I'm holding on to," JoBeth said. "He said, 'We just have to keep showing up,' and we would do that. Sometimes there were bad days when he was not feeling well. He had problems after his cancer surgery. But he managed to deal with it. He didn't wear (his problems) on his sleeve."

JoBeth, who would read police reports and complaints to Paul so he could make bail decisions, said the couple worked almost every weekend and holiday for the last 23 years.

"I remember there was a Christmas once ... He would call in and find out how many bonds there were and they didn't have any. It was like, 'Oh my God! What a gift.' We didn't know what to do," JoBeth said.

Judge John Race appointed Paul as commissioner in 1984, shortly after he started his own firm in Elkhorn.

"He was a good lawyer. He knew the law. He knew the subject," Race said. "And he didn't make stupid objections... If he made an objection, it was a good objection. If he made a point, it was a valid point. He wasn't irritating the jury or irritating the court."

Paul served in the Army, where he learned to fly helicopters, and went on to become an engineer at a company in Pennsylvania before being hired as environmental engineer for Schlitz Brewing Company in Milwaukee.

In the late 1970s, multiple sclerosis took most of Paul's sight. He couldn't be an engineer anymore so he went to law school, graduating magna cum laude and third in the class at Marquette, JoBeth said.

"There was a provision that would have accommodated him for taking a little longer to get through law school because of his impairment. He would have no part of that," JoBeth said. "He was a competitive man of sorts."

Even after near-blindness set in, Paul raced motorcycles on flat oval tracks and flew a helicopter with a co-pilot. He also rode horses and would drive his tractors on his property, JoBeth said.

His visual impairment sharpened his already acute listening skills, which paid off in the courtroom, said Kristine Skates, Paul's paralegal who was literally by his side at work for nine years.

Because he couldn't read small type, Barrett relied on people reading him complaints, statutes or other court documents so he remembered things with ease. He also didn't take notes while at law school because he couldn't write without seeing, JoBeth said.

"That's what was so amazing," Skates said. "I'm half his age and my memory is not even near what his was. You could tell him something nine years ago and he'd still remember it."

Paul had a tough exterior, but was a loving man inside, both Skates and JoBeth said.

Those who knew him said his desire to seek the truth made him one of the best defense attorneys in the county.

"Paul is the most honest man you're ever going to know," JoBeth said. "Plain. Honest. He had little tolerance for lies and deceit."

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