When most law students graduate, they put their case-briefing days behind them.
But for Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge John DiMotto, completing his J.D. was just the beginning.
Whenever DiMotto, a 23-year jurist, has a free moment, he can be found poring over published opinions from the Wisconsin appellate courts and summarizing the key rulings. He has four filing cabinets of briefs, which people refer to as his “computer.”
“I consider myself a student of the law,” DiMotto said. “Some people think I’m crazy because I do that, but it keeps me sharp.”
He also uses the briefs when teaching or helping judges from across state with difficult legal issues.
Although judges in Milwaukee County typically aren’t allowed to move filing cabinets when rotating, DiMotto’s colleagues have made an exception for him — an informal tribute to his encyclopedic legal knowledge.
The extra work has served him well with an extremely high rate of affirmances by the appellate courts.
“It’s a matter of doing your homework,” DiMotto said. “You don’t walk into a courtroom and pick up a file for the first time.
“I look at my cases in advance, scope out what the issues are and potential evidentiary problems. I look at my folders of cases that apply that type of law. And I am cautious.”
DiMotto is one of only two judges to have served complete terms in every available judicial assignment in the county.
He began his legal career in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. For nine of his 15 years as a prosecutor, he headed the Sensitive Crimes Unit. He joined the bench in 1990.
DiMotto said a guiding principle throughout his career has been thoughts of his legacy.
“My hope is that when someone asks, ‘What was John DiMotto like?’ that people would say, ‘He was a really nice guy. He really cared,’” DiMotto said. “‘And he really wanted to make his community a better place to live.’”
The longtime judge is much more than a nice guy, however, said Dan Blinka, a professor at Marquette University Law School, who has known DiMotto since their shared time as prosecutors.
“John DiMotto is the essence of a great trial judge,” Blinka said. “He has keen intelligence, a mastery of the law and empathy for the individuals who appear before him.
“His passion is to do right by people according to the law. What else would motivate someone to be that diligent and that careful for decades?”