Judge Stengel to rule Henry County

Lisa Hammer

 Henry County has a new resident judge who has been in Cambridge for a little more than a month.

 On a bitter day in January, Charles "Casey" Stengel scolds an unemployed juvenile for a pack-a-day smoking habit he can't afford, especially owing court fines and fees. (Five dollars a day for cigarettes is $150 a month, he points out to the youth.)

 An afternoon court session begins not with the words "All rise," but with the athletic judge rushing in the courtroom and saying, "You don't have to get up people, it's my fault we're late," then asking the court employee to his right whether she had enough time for lunch.

 Accepting a plea agreement in a D.U.I. case, he observes wryly, "Milwaukee's Best is a cheap beer, but it ended up being pretty expensive." He looks down at the man being sentenced for agreement.

 Judge Stengel is likely the first resident Democratic judge in a county which has been a Republican stronghold (although his assignment here may be somewhat temporary). He said party affiliation really has nothing to do with a judge's work, however.

 Before being assigned to Henry County, Judge Stengel has handed out maximum sentences several times in high-profile cases in Rock Island County in the last year alone.

 In three recent cases, he imposed the maximum 60-year sentence on a man for killing another man in a robbery, gave another man 70 years for attempted murder and aggravated battery and gave a father the maximum 60 years for murder/forcible felony in the death of his 5-month-old child.

 "I think I'm fair," he said. "Of course, different people have different versions of what fairness is."

 The Moline native worked as an accountant before graduating from the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. He said he originally went to law school to become a tax specialist, but it "just didn't work out," so he entered the public defender's office. 

 He worked as both public defender and assistant state's attorney before going on the bench in 1996 in Rock Island.

 "I enjoy the whole trial," he said, crediting attorneys with quick thinking around witnesses who can be unpredictable.

He said court is where people go when they can't come to terms.

 "That doesn't always please everyone, but what else are you going to do? Someone has to decide it, sometimes the judge, sometimes the jury."

 He said he had worked in criminal law for the past eight or nine years and was given the choice of switching to civil law in Rock Island County or coming to Henry County and covering both civil and criminal law.

 "Someone had to fill (retired judge Larry) Vandersnick's spot, and I volunteered," he said. "It was a chance to do more than just criminal."

 Since he still lives in Rock Island County, he is giving up his practice of biking to work, but he points out that because he bought a car and is now driving, his commute time remains about the same.

 He noted his appointment is considered temporary, although he said he'll probably be in the county for some time.

 "I think I'll be here for a long time," he said.