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The Honorable Janine P. Geske

How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world! How  lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway… And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!

How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world!  How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway…  And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!

This beautiful passage by Anne Frank has long inspired Professor Janine P. Geske, the 2006 Professionalism Winner for the Seventh Circuit.  To look at how she has lived her professional life is to know that she has truly taken these inspirational words to heart.

Professor Geske’s saga is a remarkable journey of achievement, dedication, introspection, selfless service to others, and self reinvention—a journey that in a sense began in 6th grade.  Professor Geske was teaching sixth grade, having received her Bachelor and Masters degrees from Beloit College.  Frustrated with school bureaucracy, she looked for an alternative career that would allow her to focus on helping people solve problems.  So without ever having met a lawyer, she went to Marquette University Law School, graduating in the top ten percent of her class, before becoming a staff attorney for the Legal Aide Society of Milwaukee. After four years and rising to become the chief staff attorney, she returned to teaching as an Assistant Professor of law at Marquette, where she established the Law School’s Legal Clinic for the Elderly.

Professor Geske’s commitment to public service called her to the bench, and in 1981, she was appointed to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.  That court was known as the busiest and most over-burdened trial court in Wisconsin, presenting judges special challenges: a high-volume court requiring daily judicial “triage” to manage a crowded docket of serious felony cases and, on the civil side, a mix of both routine and complex civil claims.  As a trial judge, she honed a particular skill for speaking directly and deciding truthfully.

After twelve years, she was appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and was elected to serve a full ten-year term the next year.  Known as a “teaching judge,” she nevertheless cemented her reputation as a scholar.  She wrote what were universally regarded as clear, soundly reasoned, thoughtful, and well-written opinions.  As colleagues recount, “she approached the work of the court with humility, collegiality, good will, and a deep respect for the rule of law and the imperative of equal justice for all persons before the Court.”  While serving on the Supreme Court, she started exploring how lawyers deal with inner struggles to find meaning in their lives and their roles in creating a better world.  In what was to become a transformative experience, she organized a retreat to the Dominican Republic with several other Wisconsin judges and lawyers.  After visiting prisons and working in an orphanage for severely disabled children—living for days in remote mountain farming communities, Professor Geske became a “changed woman.”

Her days among subsistence farmers convinced her that material possessions are unrelated to wisdom and depth.  What she did next startled friends and colleagues, but proved to all the depth of her commitment.

After five years on the Supreme Court bench, she left in the middle of her term to return to Marquette Law School and a different career path.  Assured by then Dean Howard Eisenberg that she wouldn’t have to spend time in faculty and committee meetings, part of the bureaucracy she had found so distasteful years earlier, she returned to what she loved—teaching, but also working one-on-one with others.  As distinguished Professor of Law, she established the Small Claims Mediation Clinic, which provides student mediators to help pro se litigants reach amicable settlements.  She teaches Alternative Dispute Resolution, Restorative Justice, and runs the Law School’s Restorative Judicial Clinic Program.  This takes her regularly into Wisconsin’s prison system, where she facilitates a program that helps criminal offenders grasp the reality of the harm they caused individual victims and the community.   She agreed during this time to serve as interim Dean, running the school brilliantly if reluctantly following the sudden death of Dean Eisenberg.

In collecting an outpouring of effusive praise from every corner of the legal profession in Wisconsin, Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit wrote that Professor Geske is a leading light in Wisconsin’s legal community and a pillar of civic life.  But she returned often to a recurring theme:  Professor Geske is a woman of extraordinary personal grace and warmth, strength of character, and a generosity and steadiness of spirit that has endeared her to the people of Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

Professor Geske once wrote, “My family, my faith and my community involvement deeply enrich my life as a lawyer.  It is always a struggle to try to keep up with all the wonderful things in my life in balance, but I am very blessed with all the people around me and the opportunities that I have had.  My deepest desire is that when I leave this earth I will have made it a better place for my having been here.”  That legion of friends and colleagues, of clients—both indigent and mighty, of students, of county workers, of admirers whose lives have been enriched by Professor Geske would all attest:  This world is a better place for her example.