Jean DiMotto has spent her 29-year legal career proving that a colleague was right when saying the Milwaukee judge never lacked for courage.
When DiMotto ran for the Milwaukee bench in 1998, she already had spent 14 years as a trial lawyer and administrative law judge. Still, some people suggested she was riding the coattails of her husband, Judge John DiMotto.
She ignored them. She won. Campaigning, she said, thickens the skin and makes the candidate a better judge.
“I would’ve been intimidated if I were her,” said Judge Kitty Brennan, DiMotto’s former colleague on the Milwaukee bench, “following … John DiMotto, who is such a leader and a beloved jurist. But Jean did a terrific job of making her own, independent mark on the judiciary.”
A few years later, DiMotto spearheaded Milwaukee County’s receipt of a $3 million grant to improve the justice system’s response to domestic violence. She said she knew from her own docket and research that victims frequently failed to appear for trials, necessitating dismissals.
So DiMotto started ramping up defendants’ bail conditions, making them more difficult to meet. That meant defendants more often remained incarcerated prior to trial, and, as a result, more victims showed up in court because they had not been intimidated beforehand.
More cases were tried and decided on the merits rather than concluding procedurally.
“She stands out for her intelligence,” Brennan said, “and for her penchant of requiring the utmost from the lawyers who appeared before her, in terms of their courtroom behavior and dress.”
DiMotto was responsible for a court rule to upgrade the way lawyers dressed, she said.
“[It] wasn’t because judges have some lofty notion of who they are,” Brennan said, “but because the more formal the court proceedings, the greater the civility.”
DiMotto’s courage was tested again in 2011, when she was diagnosed with cancer.
She started writing a public blog, “Cancer Light,” in which she blended humor and hope to bluntly recount the indignities of chemotherapy and the aftereffects of surgery, including incontinence and memory loss.
The blog has drawn readers from more than 50 countries, and, every day, about 50 people read it, she said. The American Journal of Nursing has republished the blog, and DiMotto said she is considering turning it into a book.
Its popularity helped inspire the next facet of DiMotto’s career: She retired in June so she would have time to write creative nonfiction.
It’s the right time for a change, she said.
“For me,” DiMotto said, “it was a privilege to have the opportunity to mature in the role and now to feel like I’m leaving at the top of my game.”
Courage, Assistant District Attorney Megan Carmody said, has played a role in much of what DiMotto has accomplished over the years, and that has applied particularly to her attitude toward sentencing. DiMotto draws on her prior profession of nursing and approaches her position as a judge with a goal of providing treatment for people, Carmody said.
“She takes a good, solid approach, looking at things holistically and with a fiercely independent mind,” Carmody said. “She’s also very good about helping new lawyers, by giving them teaching moments.”
As she leaves the law, DiMotto said she knows she has not overcome every challenge. For instance, she said, people need to develop a better balance between work and life outside of the office, and leaders, particularly in the private sector, must have the courage to make that happen.
“There’s one large firm where it’s a revolving door with women: They come in and leave, come and leave,” DiMotto said. “What’s frustrating to me is that those are some of the same male lawyers that will complain that family values are being eroded in our society, but won’t let the mothers and fathers in their own firm tend to their children.”