In the middle of running a West Coast marathon in December 2018, Dane County Circuit Judge William Hanrahan fell into a conversation lasting around 10 miles with an immigration lawyer.
Learning Hanrahan is a judge, the lawyer told him a number of federal immigration judges in San Francisco were leaving. “You should practice out here,” Hanrahan said the lawyer told him.
And while he didn’t immediately decide to do that, it was how Hanrahan, 61, found himself on a path to leaving the Dane County bench, where he has heard cases for the past 13 years. He is also the chief judge of the state judicial district made up of Columbia, Dane, Green, Lafayette, Rock and Sauk counties.
Hanrahan’s departure, on March 13, comes on somewhat short notice. Hanrahan learned only last week that after a lengthy process, he had been hired as an assistant chief immigration judge in San Francisco, and was told that he starts work on March 16. He’ll begin in San Francisco, then spend three weeks training in Washington, D.C. Then it’s back to Frisco for work.
“My hope is I can do some good,” Hanrahan said Monday. He has looked at statistics for the San Francisco court, he said, and looked at the backgrounds of the judges he’ll be supervising and saw they grant asylum to seekers at a greater rate than the rest of the country.
“I don’t know how this is going to be perceived,” Hanrahan said, given the controversy that surrounds immigration and the administrations of President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr. Immigration courts are part of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I pride myself on being nonpartisan. I’m able to follow the law,” he said. “Getting people the due process they are entitled to — that’s important to me.”
Hanrahan said when he contemplated retirement, he envisioned going to nursing school, maybe becoming a teacher, or joining the Peace Corps with his wife, Anne LeGare, who is a nursing administrator.
But another seed was planted in that conversation during the California International Marathon, which Hanrahan was taking part in while visiting his daughter, Kat Hanrahan, a student at the University of California-Davis. Months later, Hanrahan assembled and submitted a resume and application. After a few months, he had an interview in Chicago, by video conference with interviewers in Washington, D.C.
More months passed. Hanrahan flew to Washington for another interview. Hanrahan’s Dane County judicial seat was coming up for re-election and, uncertain about the San Francisco job, he needed to circulate nomination papers to get on the ballot, which he did.
“I was even getting comfy believing I would serve another six-year term,” he said.
Then on Feb. 14, he said, he got a call asking if he was still interested in the job with the immigration court. He waited for an offer letter. He took his staff out to lunch and was asked by his bailiff if he was retiring. Hanrahan said he deflected the question with a joke. Then on Friday afternoon, the letter came and he accepted the job.
As for his Dane County judicial seat, that’s a little less clear. Gov. Tony Evers generally appoints judges to vacant seats. Hanrahan’s name will appear unopposed on the April 7 ballot, though someone could mount a write-in campaign if they register by noon on April 3, said state Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney.
It’s a little murkier what happens if a write-in candidate wins. Evers could still appoint someone to the seat, but it might only be to serve the remainder of Hanrahan’s current term, which ends on July 31.