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Brennan leads Milwaukee courts

ImageAfter serving 11 years on the Milwaukee Circuit Court bench, Judge Kitty K. Brennan took on the role of chief judge of the First Administrative District last month. Brennan, who spent two years as a deputy chief judge, recognizes the variety of challenges facing the district of 47 judges. Prior to coming to the bench, the 1977 University of Wisconsin Law School graduate spent 17 years as a trial attorney — seven as a prosecutor and 10 as a general practitioner.

In recent years, the tight state and county budgets have brought the Milwaukee-based court system face-to-face with the possibility of shutting down courts. Working with the county and supported by the Milwaukee Bar Association, Brennan’s predecessor Judge Michael Sullivan was able to keep each branch functioning. Now, that is a task Brennan will face as Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and the County Board work through the 2006 budget process.

The First District’s chief judge focuses on administration and does not maintain a calendar. On Aug. 25, Wisconsin Law Journal Managing Editor Tony Anderson sat down with Brennan in her new sixth-floor office at the courthouse to discuss her change of duties and her goals for the district.

Why did you decide to move from the bench to administration?

I gave it a lot of thought. I love to do new and different things. I’m a big fan of judicial rotation, new assignments. I like to be challenged and interested. I’m also a person who has changed careers a couple of times. I like that. It keeps me hopping.

It was not without its negatives — chief among them, giving up a calendar. I’m not being a ‘real’ judge. But it’s not forever. The trade off is that I’ll have this opportunity to contribute to the courts and the judiciary.

You have talked about your love of the courtroom. Are you going to miss that during your time as chief judge?

Terribly. That’s the biggest negative about it. I came into the law business to be a trial lawyer. I was a trial lawyer for 17 years. Then I became a judge and I’ve been on the trial bench for just about 12 years. I’ll miss that.

Having said that, now that I’ve been in this job for 24 days, there are a lot of people involved in this job too. It’s not cases, but you get to use a lot of judicial skills, but in a people-handling vein as opposed to legal rulings in cases.

What do you see yourself bringing to the role of chief judge?

I hope people skills. I hope that I will be able to contribute by my communication skills to the collegiality of the judiciary. I hope those communication skills will stand the judiciary in good stead with the county board, the county executive, the state Legislature and the public. I also have some ideas of things that we in the judiciary can do if we can get around the budget crises that face us. I’m not sure that we can in the time that I have available to me.

You mentioned the budget crisis. Obviously, the Milwaukee court system has faced some financial challenges in recent years. How will you approach the budget process?

I hope to keep the judicial ship afloat here. We are about to find out what the county exec’s recommended budget will be for ’06. I don’t know. I read the headlines just like everybody else and I have concerns. But I trust that the county exec and the county board trust the job that the courts does for the citizens of this county.

We are a separate branch of government. We are not a county department. I think that the county board and county exec recognize that. I think that they know that the public needs us and we have to keep the core services of the courts going.

We don’t have anything else left to cut. If they do cut, we are talking about cuts to core court services. So I would hope they would find a way to respect this third branch of government and keep us functioning.

When you talk about cuts to core court services, what do you mean?

Shutting down courts. We don’t have any fat in our budget. The court budget is already to the bone, so were we to sustain any significant cuts of any kind, we’d have to shut courts down. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

What do you see as other significant issues that the Milwaukee Court System is facing?

That’s the chief one and it filters into all different sub-issues, like judicial parking. They are going to tear down the annex parking structure. Although judges pay for their parking and pay the same thing anybody else does in the annex, they are taking away that facility. Parking for judges isn’t just a matter of convenience. It’s a security issue. After you get done sentencing someone for a homicide, and they are going away for a very long time, if not life, walking out to a public parking structure is not safe, very often. So it’s a critical issue for the judges, that we have a safe, separate parking structure.

You had alluded to other goals beyond the budget issues. What are some of those?

I would really like to give attention to the distribution of the workload among the various courts. I think that there is some fine tuning that I can do. I think there are some courts that are overburdened and need some assistance. There are some courts that because of fluctuations in filings, maybe work is down in one area and I can redistribute the work load. That has important ramifications for everybody, not just the judges working in those courts. For example, our drug courts are overburdened right now. That’s hard on everybody who works in them and it’s hard on the litigants, because things are not being given enough attention. The first goal will be to redistribute the workload appropriately for everybody.

Secondarily, these are things that could be done better with money and there is no money, but I would like to do some improvements in delivery of litigation services to pro se litigants. Judge Rick Sankovitz and Judge Mike Dwyer have done a lot with that recently. They have developed volunteers. We started a small claims volunteer network when I was in small claims four years ago. One lawyer did it all these years. Now, Judge Sankovitz and Rachel Schneider from the bar have developed more, but I’d like to expand that. I’d like to get it systematized. I’d like to develop space in the courthouse, maybe a kiosk with forms that could be downloaded by litigants.

The shape of it, I’m not certain of because of the availability of funds, but we need to do something more.

Another area I’d really like to devote attention to is Children’s Court. Child-ren’s Court is really a different animal from the rest of the court system because it involves services to families and the children out there. It has more of a social services component to it than the rest of the court system does. By statute, the judges are the ones that are in charge of making sure that whole system, including the social services component, works.

Another thing I’d really like to do is come up with some assistance for the violence rate, the homicide rate here in Milwaukee. Maybe there is a role to be served by a court in that area.

How have the 11 years that you spent on the bench affected the way you approach your new role?

It’s given me a great basis for this role of chief judge. I think I’m the first chief judge, at least that I can think of, that has not been facing retirement. I will go back when I’m done and be a trial court judge. It was formerly something done later in one’s career.

I’ve worked through the criminal and civil courts, so I think that experience has been invaluable. You need to have a good understanding of the functioning of all the different kinds of courts that we have. I believe that I have that. It also has given me an opportunity to know my colleagues well, and the county employees, the sheriff’s department, the state employees who work in the courts as well. Personnel is a big part of my job, so that is a good thing.

It also gave me an opportunity to think of what I might do if I had the opportunity to sit in this office.

You spent two years in the early 1970s teaching speech and English. How did that prepare you for being a judge?

I’ve often said to people that being a teacher was very much like being a lawyer. It’s communicating with large groups. Persuasion is what you are trying to do. Ever try to get a kid to read Huck Finn? It’s very difficult to persuade a 16-year-old in high school that there’s any point to his learning to read literature critically. If you can do that, you can persuade a jury on any number of issues.

They are very much the same — people skills, talking with people, communicating, persuasion. I thought it served me very well.

You once mentioned that you didn’t fit into the law school mold. How did you differ from your law school classmates?

I was a hippie back in the ’60s and ’70s when I went to college and law school. I remember showing up at the first day of law school in Madison and I was wearing cutoffs and a peasant blouse and I had hair down to the middle of my back.

I was standing in line with all these guys in three-piece suits with briefcases and I thought, “I wonder if I’m going to last here?” But I did. Madison had a mix. There were a lot of returning Peace Corps volunteers. There was a far greater ethnic diversity in the university then than there is now. I say that from the experience of a parent with four kids in and out of there. So I was not as big a freak as it appeared on the first day of class.

I was somebody going to law school who didn’t want to be in a big firm. I wasn’t there to make a million bucks. I knew from that beginning that I wanted to be a general practice lawyer. I wanted to be in a firm that handled a variety of cases and I wanted to do trial work.

I remember my third year of law school a very famous Milwaukee criminal defense lawyer Bill Coffey was my teacher for criminal law. I was telling him how I was looking around for a trial job in Milwaukee. He said, “You’ll never get it. Nobody hires women for trial work.” Which was true in 1977 when I graduated. The only person who was hiring women was Mike McCann in the Milwaukee D.A.’s Office. So that’s where I applied and I was lucky enough to get hired.

How did that experience shape what followed?

Incredibly! Mike McCann was a wonderful mentor and teacher. I learned how to try a case, because the first day on the job they handed me 50 files and said, “One of these will be your jury for today.” I’m not exaggerating. It was before they had the pre-trial system and there was no way to prepare 50 files for trial, so you just walked in there and the judge called the case and you just began the trial.

Mike McCann concluded every staff meeting with the words, “Remember, you are here to do justice.” He meant it. All of us, who had the power of a prosecutor, had that power tempered. That power was not unbridled. There was an important check on that and the check was an inner check, that being justice. He called you into his office in those days if he didn’t think you were dispensing justice, if he didn’t think you were being judicious and fair. It was a wonderful example. I really feel that I learned a great deal and started this profession out on the right foot by having the wonderful opportunity to work in his office for seven years.

After that, you went to work with Joe Murphy?

Yes, my husband. He left the D.A.’s Office and started his own law firm in South Milwaukee and was the elected city attorney there, as well. I joined him in 1984. Practiced with him for 10 years and it was a blast. We loved working together. We hated
it and we loved it.

What were the benefits and challenges of working with your spouse?

Well, the challenge was that we were two completely different persons — as anyone who knows us knows — so the styles were very different. We didn’t share cases. But it was wonderful to have my husband as my partner. He taught me a great deal about running a business. In a small firm like that, you have overhead, staff and things like that. He taught me all of that. It was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to share the responsibility of that together.

We talked way too much about law before that, during that, and since that at home. In fact, the kids, when they were little, made us swear off talking about law while they were awake after work. So once they were in bed, we could talk about cases and such. We still do that, we love it.

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