After 10 years working in the banking industry, Rhoda Ricciardi decided to pursue a career she had been interested in as a child.
“I remember watching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and I wanted to be Atticus Finch,” said Ricciardi, a court commissioner for Dane County. “I was also looking for a career where I could support myself and my kids, and the law seemed a good fit.”
Ricciardi attended the University of Wisconsin-Parkside to earn a bachelor’s degree and then moved to Madison with her three children to attend the University of Wisconsin Law School. Following graduation, she was hired by the Office of the State Public Defender and worked in Sauk County. For 15 years she handled between 300 and 400 criminal cases annually and worked as an adjunct professor at the UW Law School.
“I guess I had my opportunity after all to be Atticus Finch,” she said. “I enjoyed helping those who didn’t have anyone else to speak for them.”
In 2011, Ricciardi became a Dane County Circuit Court commissioner. Beyond presiding over hearings for cases involving family and paternity law, mental health, guardianship, small claims, juvenile and criminal law, she runs the county’s medium-risk drug court.
For the drug court, Ricciardi leads a team that includes a prosecutor from the district attorney’s office, a public defender and a liaison from Journey Mental Health, who manages the bulk of the court’s treatment programs.
She meets with her team every Tuesday and then follows those gatherings with an in-court review of program participants.
“Working on the drug court is the most challenging part of my job but the most fulfilling,” Ricciardi said. “The vast majority of participants are addicted to heroin, and it’s our goal to keep them off and to help them get their lives back. It’s so hard to watch people make positive changes, but then slip back into their old ways.”
Ricciardi and her team’s work for the drug court are essential to the general success of the county’s court system, said Dane County Circuit Court Judge Rhonda Lanford.
“Commissioner Ricciardi works on the front line to help those battling the very serious problem” of heroin addiction,” she said. Ricciardi really enjoys “being the main cheerleader for the court participants in working toward their goal.”
Working with the drug court allows Ricciardi to continue her passion of working with those who most need help.
“The most rewarding part of my job is definitely watching people graduate from the court and moving on successfully with their lives,” she said.