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Skwierawski’s administration leaves legacy

Skwierawski

Hon. Michael J. Skwierawski

Following 25 years of judicial service to Milwaukee County, five as chief judge, Michael J. Skwierawski, 60, is retiring. Those within the First Judicial Administrative District say he is leaving the state’s largest court system better than when he came.

Throughout a variety of positions — chief judge, deputy chief and presiding judge of court operations — Skwierawski has worked to implement changes designed to improve the flow of cases through the system, in an effort to improve access to justice.

Judge Thomas R. Cooper said Skwierawski took the role of chief judge from a position which reacted to problems to one that identified them early on.

“He was the kind of person who would identify problems and then identify solutions,” Cooper said during a recent interview. “He would meet with judges, then start working on programs to solve those problems.”

Skwierawski and Cooper both started working in the Milwaukee court system in 1978, Skwierawski as a circuit court judge and Cooper as a court commissioner. Ten years ago, Cooper was appointed judge.

Throughout the years, the role of chief judge has been evolving, Cooper observed. Skwierawski’s predecessor, Judge Patrick T. Sheedy, “established the principle of a strong chief judge,” he noted. “Mike Skwierawski continued that.”

Administrative Skills

Court Administrator Bruce Harvey also lauded Skwierawski’s contributions to the court system. He saw the retiring judge exhibit the skills of a strong administrative judge.

“He has come into this as a CEO or executive of a very large corporation,” Harvey said. “He has been able to focus on the budget issues and the personnel issues that drive this organization.

“By bringing those business skills to this organization, it has put us on a footing that reflects in higher efficiency and a more effective delivery of a service,” he continued.

Judge Kitty K. Brennan noted that Skwierawski has been very consistent in his management of the court system, providing many opportunities for people to offer their input.

“He’s a very good administrator,” Brennan said. “To be the manager is not necessarily the same talent and gift of being a good judge, but Judge Mike Skwierawski has that talent and gift.”

For his own part, Skwierawski, who began practicing law 36 years ago, said he has tried to implement institutional changes, designed to help the court system beyond his tenure.

Throughout his time on the bench, Skwierawski has worked on a variety of projects from improving the ability to move cases through the courts to efforts to explain court operations to participants. The latter example took the form of a written policies and procedures manual for the First District, a goal he’d had for 14 years. As chief judge, he finally had the time and ability to oversee contributions from each division to a three-volume “nuts and bolts” manual about court operations.

“I feel as though that’s a major contribution that I have made to the system — those kinds of institutional changes,” Skwierawski said.

Speeding up the Courts

As a deputy chief judge under Chief Judge Michael Barron in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Skwierawski helped develop and served on the first drug court, which laid the groundwork for all of the speedy trial courts that followed. They reduced the time required to take a drug case from initial appearance to adjudication from more than a year to fewer than 90 days.

“That was the springboard, which led to the homicide courts and the sexual assault courts, which have an even greater impact on the community in what it does for victims and families of victims,” Skwierawski explained.

He also noted efforts to reduce the stacking of civil cases, while speeding up the flow of those cases through the system. “We take large claim, civil cases from start to finish in about 18 months, which is a remarkable timeframe,” he said.

Two of the projects that are his greatest source of pride involve
changes at the children’s court and in the area of domestic violence. During the past nine months, Skwierawski said, they have implemented significant changes in the handling of cases at the children’s court center. One of the main features has been an effort to quickly develop a plan for family visitation when a child is removed from a home.

During a retreat last fall, they discussed studies showing the importance of family contact. Skwier-awski noted that children removed from their home who do not have some visitation or ancillary services provided within a week are 50 percent less likely to be reunified with their families.

To that end, visitation plans are developed within 72 hours and implemented within a week, assuming that can be safely achieved.

“In the past, we were lucky to get an agent assigned to a child within about 30 days and nothing significant would happen in court for at least 30 days,” Skwierawski said. “Now, we have an immediate detention hearing to determine where the child should be.”

The other project pertains to domestic violence cases and the creation of the Judicial Oversight Initiative. The court has utilized a $7 million federal grant to help assess the system and implement changes in the delivery of services to domestic violence victims and defendants.

“That project really changed the landscape throughout the community in how domestic violence is add-ressed,” Skwierawski said.

Another contribution to the court system has come from Skwierawski’s full implementation of judicial rotation in Milwaukee County, Brennan observed. While acknowledging that some might disagree with her, Brennan said, the overall system has gained a lot from the interaction of judges from different divisions. Those benefits offset loss of judges specializing in particular areas, she said.

Harvey also pointed to efforts Skwierawski had taken to improve courthouse security, which manifest themselves long before the Sept. 11, 2001, incident, which heightened security concerns across the country.

“Everybody who comes here has to feel a level of security and safety,” Harvey said. “Mike Skwierawski has had the desire to create that environment for years and years.”

Basketball Court

Only judging Skwierawski by his quiet, reserved public demeanor would be a mistake. One would miss out on the aggressive, dynamic court system leader. Cooper said that spirit is reflected in the way the retiring chief judge plays basketball.

“The whole idea that he’s an assertive chief judge — he learned that playing basketball,” Cooper joked.

The two judges regularly play basketball down in the sheriff’s gym during lunchtime with competitors much younger than they are. Those games are notorious for the bumps, bruises and doctor’s visits.

“To say he’s an aggressive basketball player is an understatement,” Cooper noted. “Quite frankly, he’s very good. He’s 60 years old and down at the sheriff’s gym we play with a lot of young deputies, DAs and police officers.”

Another surprise for those who only see the public side of the retiring chief judge is his participation in the rock band, Presumed Guilty, where he sings and plays bass. The group, made up of judges, only performs at judicial functions.

“That’s the most incongruous part,” Brennan noted, “Judge Skwierawski the administrator is also the leader of a rock band.”

Skwierawski started out as a litigator spending eight years in private practice and three in the district attorney’s office. As a litigator, he was attracted to the role of trial judge. He also wanted to serve as a role model for the Polish community. Gov. Martin Schreiber appointed him to the bench in 1978 and he was elected to the position one year later.

Throughout his time on the bench, Skwierawski presided over 512 jury trials. One of the highest profile cases was the trial of Lawrencia Bembenek.

“One of the most significant things that people never talk about is that it was really the first gavel-to-gavel televised trial in the history of the state,” he said, noting his support for cameras in the courtroom. At a time long before Court TV, television cameras in the courtroom were very experimental.

Another high-profile case during that same time period involved a criminal proceeding against Milwaukee Area Technical College Director William Ramsey. Due to the pretrial publicity, Skwierawski ended up conducting that case in Wausau.

As his 25 years on the bench come to an end, Skwierawski plans to remain active in the legal system on a part-time basis. He plans to stay involved d
oing mediation, arbitration and trial consulting.

Beyond that, Skwierawski plans to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren. He also wants to set aside time for volunteer work. He even is considering working through the American Bar Association or the United Nations to help other countries with their legal programs.

As Skwierawski moves on, he acknowledges one dark cloud associated with his retirement, the election to fill the seat he has vacated. Skwierawski’s daughter, Audrey, announced her candidacy for the Branch 12 seat the day after her father announced he would not be seeking re-election. That timing became an issue that dominated the race, which David L. Borowski eventually won.

“The suggestion that somehow Audrey got a head start on people because I announced my retirement when I did was nonsense,” Skwierawski said. “I don’t believe it was justified or deserved. This was an open election process. … There were two candidates who had been campaigning a year before any of this ever happened, including the one who ultimately won the election.”

Looking back at his administrative efforts, Skwierawski said, the bottom line has been to provide people with better access to justice.

“That has been an overriding philosophical approach to what I have tried to do during the past five years,” Skwierawski said.

Tony Anderson can be reached by email.

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