June 7, 2023 – Judge Patricia Curley’s career as a prosecutor and a judge was practically pre-ordained.
Her grandfather worked as a detective for Milwaukee County District Attorney William McCauley and her father, Robert M. Curley, served as a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge.
“With my father being a judge, I thought being a lawyer would be a great idea,” said Curley, who celebrates 50 years as a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Law in her Blood
Curley grew up on the east side of Milwaukee. Her grandfather often regaled her with stories from his time working as a gumshoe for McCauley, who was known for his flamboyant courtroom style.
“One time, my grandfather had to guard Mae West when she was in Milwaukee,” Curley said.
Upon graduation from University School, Curley attended Marquette University, where she obtained a B.A. in English with a philosophy minor.
In 1970, Curley followed her father to Marquette University Law School.
It was the tail end of the turbulent 1960s but unlike the U.W.-Madison campus 70 miles to the west, political unrest at Marquette – a private Catholic school – was more restrained, if not quiescent.
“When I was in law school, we sometimes were asked to leave the building because there were bomb threats,” Curley said.
Sensitive Crime Unit
After obtaining her J.D. in 1973, Curley followed in her grandfather’s footsteps and took a position as a prosecutor with Milwaukee County District Attorney Michael McCann’s office.
Jeff M. Brown, Willamette Univ. School of Law 1997, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.
The family connection to the office wasn’t the only factor in Curley’s decision.
“Firms were not real keen on women in those days,” Curley said.
Curley said her mother had some reservations about her daughter working as a prosecutor.
“She just thought I’d be working among criminals, which was true – I was,” Curley said. “But for me it was terrific.”
Curley was assigned to the sensitive crimes area. She handled sexual assaults and child abuse cases.
Many attorneys find that handling such cases exacts an emotional toll. Not Curley.
“If they did, I didn’t realize it,” Curley said. “It was very interesting work.”
‘He Was Very Fair’
Curley said that working for McCann was special. It’s a common refrain among McCann’s former prosecutors.
“He was a wonderful boss, and the kind of law that we did wasn’t happening all over the country,” Curley said. “He was very fair. We were never supposed to overcharge people, it was a great place to work and great people to work with.”
Curley attributes McCann’s approach to criminal law to his faith.
“He might have been in the seminary for while, or certainly was thinking about it,” Curley said. “He was very strong Catholic, and I think that’s what drove a lot of his desire to be fair.”
Old Boys’ Club
Curley was one of only two or three female prosecutors out of about three dozen in McCann’s shop. The female prosecutors sometimes had a tough time with older male judges.
“There was a judge by the name of Ralph Gorenstein,” Curley said. “On occasion, he’d say to women, ‘The rules say you have to wear a coat and tie. Where’s your tie?’
“He never did it to me, but he did kick some women out of his court because they weren’t wearing a tie. Hard to believe, but that really happened.”
On the whole, however, Curley said she enjoyed her time working as a prosecutor.
“I loved being in court,” Curley said. “You were nervous, of course, but you were there to make the streets safer for Milwaukee.”
Curley said she also liked the decision-making the job forced her to engage in.
“I think one of the attributes of people who like [being a prosecutor] is they have to be able to make decisions, and some people don’t like to make decisions, I’ve discovered,” Curley said. “I think that was helpful, that I could sit down with something and decide what I’m going to do with it.”
Appointed to Bench
That fondness for being the decider would serve Curley well in her next job – Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge.
In 1977, Wisconsin voters passed a constitutional amendment that created the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Three judges from Milwaukee were elected to the new court, opening up three seats on the Milwaukee County bench.
Governor Martin Schreiber appointed Curley and Leah Lampone to two of the seats.
They were the first women judges in Milwaukee County after Vel Phillips, a Black lawyer and Milwaukee Common Council member whom Governor Patrick Lucey appointed in 1971.
The constitutional amendment and the seats it opened up on the Milwaukee County bench couldn’t have come at a better time for Curley.
“I had always looked at that as something I wanted to do but at the time there were no women judges,” Curley said. “That was a serious problem.”
Curley said that Schreiber’s decision to appoint two women at once was a political masterstroke.
“What he did was brilliant when I look back on it now,” Curley said.
Like Father, Like Daughter
For five years, from 1978 to 1983, Curley served with her father on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.
It wasn’t always a bed of roses, however.
“It was a little hard at first because some older male lawyers were not happy, and both Leah I were in our early thirties at the time, so we weren’t what some people expected a circuit court judge to look like,” Curley said.
Curley spent much of her time as a circuit court judge presiding over family court.
One big change she saw during her 18 years on the Milwaukee County bench was a rise in the number of pro se litigants in family court.
“When I started in family court, everybody had a lawyer,” Curley said. “At the time I left, almost no one had a lawyer.”
Curley said that the move to no-fault divorce, which obviated the need to list a reason to justify the divorce – and the need to hire a lawyer and an investigator to uncover a reason – was one reason for the change.
“I think people just decided that lawyers were too expensive,” Curley said. “They figured could do as good a job as a lawyer could.”
That wasn’t always the case, Curley said. One of her favorite courthouse stories is the time a couple seeking a divorce misunderstood a filing about maintenance (analogous to alimony).
“They had written in, ‘We’ll take care of our own car,’” Curley said. “That kind of gives you the flavor of what was going on.”
The rise in the number of pro se litigants meant that family law cases took longer to resolve. Curley did her part to speed things up by creating forms designed with laypeople in mind.
But forms, even well-designed ones, could only do so much.
“If you followed the form, you could figure it out,” Curley said. “But it did take more time because they had no exposure to the legal system.”
By 1996, Curley was burned out on being a circuit court judge. She decided to run against Court of Appeals District I Judge Mike Sullivan, who was 72 at the time.
Political wisdom cautions against running against a judicial incumbent.
But that same 1977 constitutional amendment that had indirectly opened up a seat on the Milwaukee County bench for Curley also meant that open seats on the state court of appeals and supreme court occurred less often.
The amendment replaced the mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 for an age, not less than 70, to be set by the legislature. To this day, the legislature has declined to set the age, which in effect means that there’s no mandatory retirement age.
“The retirement age gave everybody below the people who were about to be 70 some hope that they could go on to something else,” Curley said. “But once the retirement age was changed, there was no guarantee that you’d ever be able to move up.”
“It just changed the dynamic completely. If you wanted to run, the only way you were going to do it was if somebody died or retired.”
Curley beat Sullivan. She won re-election in 2002, 2008, and 2014 before retiring in 2016. From 2007 until she retired, Curley served as the presiding judge.
Variety on Court of Appeals Was Appealing
One thing Curley appreciated about the court of appeals compared to the circuit court was the variety of cases that came before her.
“You never knew what was going to come up on a panel. You did see a lot of pro se people who claim their lawyer was ineffective. There were several of those every month.”
She also appreciated the more flexible work arrangements.
“I could go on vacation and take my work with me,” Curley said. “It was the original remote work arrangement. That was very nice. You weren’t confined to courtroom; you took your briefs with you.”
Curley said that during her time on the court of appeals, criminal cases began to predominate, as civil litigation got more expensive and parties increasingly turned to alternative dispute resolution.
Curley said she thought several times about running for the supreme court but decided that a seat on the high court “wasn’t in the cards” for her.
“You’ve got to run statewide, and Milwaukee isn’t the most popular place in the state,” Curley said.
These days Curley, who lives in Milwaukee, spends her time traveling, spoiling her granddaughter, and reading. She recently returned from a trip to Madrid.
Curley bemoans the change in conduct that’s marked recent supreme court races.
“I think they’ve gotten a little more vicious, if the last supreme court race is any example,” Curley said. “People just aren’t as civil as they used to be. When I ran, I think people were just much more civilized in their conduct and that’s kind of gone out the window.”
Curley said partisanship bears much of the blame.
“When I was appointed a judge and I went to the Milwaukee County courthouse, nobody had defined me as a Democrat,” Curley said. “Once you got up there, you were all just judges. And that’s completely changed.”
She cites the media practice of identifying federal judges in part by the president who appointed them as an example.
“It’s very hard to be fair when you’re targeted on the basis of who appointed you,” Curley said.
Curley said things have gotten worse for lawyers too but says the state’s legal system continues to distinguish itself.
“I think the golden years for lawyers and judges have come and gone,” Curley said. “I think that today it’s a harder job for lawyers and judges. I think there’s still a lot of good law being made, and I think we’re blessed in this state because we’ve never had any corruption in the court system.”