Academic journal article Journal of Appellate Practice and Process

One Judge's Journey

Academic journal article Journal of Appellate Practice and Process

One Judge's Journey

Article excerpt

After twelve years as a Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge and five years as a Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, I made the difficult decision to leave the judiciary in the middle of a ten-year term. Although I loved being a judge, I felt that I was being pulled in a new direction. The decision to leave the Court at the age of forty-nine was difficult and painful, but as this essay shows, leaving was clearly the right choice for me.

BUILDING A LIFE IN THE LAW

After graduating from Marquette Law School in 1975, I started my legal career by serving as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. During my three years as a lawyer for the poor, those without a powerful voice in our community showed me their critical need for a just forum in which to work through their disputes. Just as importantly, I also saw how our formal system frequently failed to provide an environment in which the disadvantaged were treated respectfully.

At thirty-two I was appointed a Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge, a position I held for twelve years. As a trial court judge, I attempted to provide a meaningful and considerate judicial process to all who entered my courtroom. Within the limits of what can be accomplished in our formal legal system, I believed I succeeded in creating an environment in which all who came to my court felt that they were heard and treated fairly. However, I always knew that there was only so much that the structured legal process could provide to those who truly needed to be listened to and who needed to find solutions for the difficult problems that they faced.

I was appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1993, and was elected to serve a full ten-year term in 1994. Although I did not complete that term, I am honored to have had the opportunity to serve as a member of the Court, and despite my decision to leave, I remain mindful of the importance of the Court's work to the development of the rule of law and to our democracy. I knew when I was on the Court that my experiences as a legal-aid lawyer, trial court judge, community leader, judicial educator, law professor, prison teacher, victims' advocate, mother, and wife all contributed to my effectiveness as an appellate judge. I liked bringing my unique experiences to the conference room when we discussed our cases. Those feelings, however, did not diminish my sense of loss in not directly working with individual people, particularly the poor.

LISTENING TO THE CALL

During my time on the Court, one of my law professors and dear friends, Charles Clausen, and I would talk for hours about how lawyers find it so difficult to speak to each other about issues of faith and spirituality. Whatever their beliefs, lawyers, like everyone else, face inner struggles with the meaning of their lives and their roles in creating a better world. So in 1997, Chuck and I organized a spiritual retreat; we invited thirteen prominent judges and lawyers to go to the Dominican Republic to reflect on our own vocations while working and living with the rural poor for ten days. The members of our group, which included E. Michael McCann, the Milwaukee District Attorney; Howard Eisenberg, then dean of the Marquette Law School; and Diane Sykes, now a judge on the Seventh Circuit, removed ourselves from our high-profile legal lives and spent time immersing ourselves in a culture of poverty and spirituality. We all were deeply affected by our experiences. I returned a changed woman, knowing that I was being called to do something different in my life.

Upon my return, my spiritual advisor and I decided that I needed to take some reflective time to look at my life, my talents, and my professional aspirations. I began to ask some key questions: Am I doing the work that I will be proud of when I am lying on my death bed looking back at my life? Am I using my experience and my gifts in the most meaningful way possible? How am I impacting the lives of people around me? …

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