After 10 years as an associate judge, Wellborn excited to ‘get my first name back’ in retirement

Debra Wellborn

Debra Wellborn presided over her last Drug Court cases on Thursday in the Adams County Courthouse. She says her most rewarding work has been her time with the cases approved for Drug Court. | David Adam

QUINCY — Debra Wellborn’s decision to retire as an associate judge in Adams County on July 2 means she will get her first name back.

“One of the things that (retired judge) Diane Lagoski told me was, “When you first get to be a judge, just remember you lose your first name,’” Wellborn recalled with a smile. “Everybody just says, ‘Hi, Judge,’ and that was a little alarming — but it’s true.

“Now that I’m retiring, I’m going to get my first name back. Just call me Deb. I’m really excited about that.”

Wellborn’s last day in the Adams County Courthouse was Friday, June 28. Josh Jones has been appointed to replace her, and his investiture is Friday, July 5. She’s been one of five associate judges who work throughout the Eighth Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Adams, Brown, Calhoun, Cass, Mason, Menard, Pike and Schuyler counties. She replaced Tom Ortbal, and her first day on the job was Jan. 2, 2015. 

She grew up in Macon, Mo. Her father was an administrative law judge in Missouri, and her mother was a legal secretary for attorneys in Macon.

“Somewhere along the line, I thought, ‘I could probably do this,’” Wellborn said.

She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri in 1984 and her juris doctor in 1986 from Washington University in St. Louis. After clerking for circuit judges in St. Louis and doing legal work in Edwardsville, Wellborn and her husband, former Adams County State’s Attorney Barney Bier, moved to Quincy in 1988. 

“If you had told me on that trip to Quincy … that this would have come out to this end, I probably wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “I didn’t have an agenda going forward. Let’s put it that way. It just all seemed to come together, and it seemed to work.”

Wellborn, who turns 62 later this year, worked in the prosecuting attorney’s office in Marion County (Mo.) and had a private practice in Hannibal before taking a job as an assistant state’s attorney in the Adams County state’s attorney’s office under Scott Walden in the early 1990s. She moved into private practice and was a defense lawyer and part-time public defender for several years before joining the Illinois attorney general’s office in 1998.

“What fascinates me about law is that process of learning to be more open about how you’re thinking and still getting right to the end of it and going, ‘That fits right here,’” she said. “I like things to fit in a pocket where they’re supposed to do. I terribly am a rule follower.

“(Being a judge means you) should be always open to listening. I think sometimes I would forget as an attorney that the other side gets to argue. As a judge, it was like, ‘Wow, OK. Got it. I see you guys have really thought this all the way through I guess I have to think it through, too.’”

Wellborn has handled all types of cases as a judge, most recently handling civil and traffic cases. She says her most rewarding work has been her time presiding over the cases approved for Drug Court.

“It’s just really watching people who are in the system,” she said. “You’re not seeing them from just this window of, ‘Here’s your charges,’ but actually getting them to talk to you. You hear from the probation officer every week. These are the things that happened, even if they’re not drug-related things. These are the family things that happened this week. These are the housing things, the job, other things that have happened. You get to know them a little bit better. 

“I’d like to think I’m compassionate with everyone, but you can really be compassionate with people (in drug court) and still tell them, ‘These are the rules.’ The only sad part is when somebody really can’t seem to let go of whatever their issue is.”

Which is why Wellborn admits Drug Court also can be difficult. 

“Sometimes it’s hard to let go at the end of the day,” she said. “It’s not necessarily harder to be in the courtroom, but it’s that transition to social time and those kinds of things. I’m not going to miss knowing that things aren’t always matching up for people all the time. Some of the things that are going on, I really am looking forward to not knowing all of that.”

She will miss the people she sees daily in the courthouse.

“People come knock on my door, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘These people have known me since 1990,’” Wellborn said. “These are people I’ve known my whole adult life. It seems kind of strange to think I’m not going to see some of these people in the hallway and get to ask about their grandkids.

“A lot of people, what do they do socially? They talk about work. Amongst the judges, we could talk about some of this stuff. But judges don’t have a broad pool of people to talk to. When we go out with friends, Barney’s tennis is something easy to talk about. Gardening is easy to talk about. But you pick and find things. You’re never really talking about city issues, because it just isn’t appropriate (for a judge) to be talking about those things. You’ve just got to stay quiet. Now it will be a little bit easier. Now I can say, ‘I read about that too.’ It’s going to be a little more casual.”

Wellborn also looks forward to trying social media in retirement.

“I’ve never turned on social media,” she said with a laugh. “When I went to new judges school, the guy there said, ‘If you don’t have any social media, don’t turn it on.’ People who know me know I’m kind of a very literal person. If you tell me that, then that’s the rule. I’m going to follow. 

“I would like to start to know some more of those social and family things. I recently had to send a text message to a cousin and say, ‘I don’t have any social media. Can you send me that picture we took?’ Years ago, it was maybe easier to say, ‘Don’t turn that on and do that.’ But now, so much of what’s going on is on social media. I want to track with friends, family and people who are going, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t know anything about that.’”

When people start looking for her on social media, search for her first name. Not “Judge.”

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