Judge Mel Flanagan was photographed last month in Vlasic, Bosnia Herzegovina, for an article on a UNICEF website on children’s rights, #ZaSvakoDijete.
May 4, 2016 – Those who know her aren't surprised, although she admits she was.
Judge Mel Flanagan of Milwaukee is the recipient of the 2016 Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Bench and Bar Committee.
The Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award recognizes a jurist who has served more than one full term as a circuit court judge and has demonstrated outstanding, long-term judicial service during his or her years as a sitting judge.
“It was wonderful. I was very touched,” Judge Flanagan said. “You’re saying I had a good career, and that’s an amazing thing to say to anybody. I take the award very seriously and it means a lot to me.”
Judge Flanagan retired in February after 23 years as a Milwaukee Circuit Court judge and 10 years as a prosecutor.
It is her special interest in domestic and sexual violence – and the teaching she’s done around the world and in Wisconsin to expand understanding on the topic – that prompted friends and colleagues to nominate her for the award.
Those who nominated Judge Flanagan for the award describe her as having high ideals, an exemplary personal character, judicial competence, and someone who has accomplished extraordinary efforts to enhance the judicial system.
“Mel is a true believer in the value of the judiciary and courts for the betterment of the world,” said Judge Kitty Brennan, Wisconsin Court of Appeals District I.
She is a courageous jurist who in her career followed the mission to maintain the rule of law and to protect the rights of citizens, according to Chief Judge Maxine Aldridge White of the First Judicial District, Milwaukee County.
A Path to Doing What’s Right
Mel Flanagan entered the legal profession to assist in furthering issues involving women and children, after working in Hawaii for the National Organization for Women while attending college. She graduated from the U.W. Law School in 1984, and during an internship in a district attorney’s office, “got hooked” on the thought of doing the right thing and being the person to decide whether someone is charged and what they are changed with. “I just thought there was so much more there to help people. Not just the victims, but helping the defendants too,” Judge Flanagan said.
Judge Mel Flanagan stands in a tunnel in Sarajevo, built in 1993 under the airport while the city was under siege during the Bosnian War. The tunnel linked the besieged city with an area controlled by the United Nations, and allowed supplies and humanitarian aid to get into the city, and for people to get out.
She spent 10 years as an assistant district attorney in Dane and Milwaukee counties, specializing in domestic and sexual violence cases, before becoming a judge in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. She’s dedicated her life to teaching and lecturing on the subject, including with the Wisconsin Office of Judicial Education, the Wisconsin State Judicial College, and the National Judicial Education Program. She was also an invited guest at the Women & Justice Conferences in 2012 and 2013, when the conference was held at the United Nations in New York.
Teaching Around the World
Judge Flanagan has traveled around the world to numerous events on domestic violence and child abuse, among other topics, in Bangladesh, France, Ghana, The Hague, Netherlands, and Washington, D.C., as well as around Wisconsin.
She’s learned much on the bench about the interconnectedness of domestic and sexual violence – that often, the same people and families are involved. “It’s an issue of power and control over the people in the household. The women, the children, and everybody else.”
She teaches about domestic violence, including its effect of violence on children, and draws the connection among such crimes as strangulation, stalking, emotional violence, and isolation. “Domestic violence is not just battering. It’s a whole continuum of behaviors,” she said.
Understanding the cycle of violence is the key to breaking it. “It’s learned behavior. Which means people can learn not to do this, too. But they have to understand where it came from and how they got to be the way they are,” she said.
It was the chance to further that understanding in Bosnia that prompted her to retire as a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge last year.
Američka Sutkinja in Sarajevo
Currently on a six-month Fulbright scholarship, Judge Flanagan is taking the lessons she’s learned as prosecutor and judge about the cycle of domestic and sexual violence in Bosnia. As “Američka Sutkinja Flanagan” (American Judge Flanagan), she is working with Bosnian judges, law students, law professors, prosecutors, and police.
org sgreen wisbar Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by org sgreen wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.
“I’m listening and learning from them, and then I’m filling in the gaps of what their knowledge is,” she said.
Countering domestic violence is easier in the U.S., where information is readily available. It is much more difficult for those who don’t speak English or have access to the books and other resources available in the U.S.
Thanks to Judge Flanagan, those resources have now been translated and printed with the support of Atlantic Initiative, a non-profit and non-governmental organization established in Sarajevo, and an international foundation, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF).
“They’re just diving in and taking advantage of access to materials they otherwise wouldn’t have,” she said of the judges in Sarajevo. "And they’re seeing that it really does affect their job as a judge and it does affect their communities."
In Bosnia, because of the culture and a lack of resources, the victims have little support and little chance to escape, Judge Flanagan said. That is changing with her help. The judges now understand, and are working hard to make change happen. “I see real promise in their enthusiasm and their interest,” she said.
Conflict and Harmony
Judge Flanagan is a teacher in another area that is important to her life – the martial art, Aikido. Beginning as one of the only women among Japanese men practicing in Hawaii in 1975, she has risen to the rank of fourth degree black belt, and for 20 years has been an instructor at a Milwaukee area dojo.
Judge Mel Flanagan, center, pictured here in 2012, practices and teaches Aikido in the Milwaukee area. She holds the rank of fourth degree black belt.
Practicing Aikido is not just something you leave on the mat, she says. Instead, it is something that informs every aspect of your life. “We need to resolve the conflicts with each other in all elements of our lives, and resolve them in a way that’s positive,” Judge Flanagan said.
Aikido, “the way of harmony” – which emphasizes redirecting an opponent’s strength against them without harm to them or to the one attacked – has helped her to connect with victims and defendants. It’s also helped her survive the daily stress of trauma that is part of the life of being prosecutor and judge. It helps keep her life in balance. “I don’t know where I’d be without it,” Judge Flanagan said.
Brilliance, Passionate Dedication, High Ideals
Judge Flanagan deserves the award – as well as being named a Fulbright Scholar – because of her "brilliance, passionate dedication, and hard, tenacious work,” says Attorney Margaret Tarrant of Shorewood.
Past Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award Recipients
Thomas Barland, Angela Bartell, Edward R. Brunner, Edwin C. Dahlberg, John A. Decker, William D. Dyke, Mark J. Farnum, Harold Froehlich, Myron L. Gordon, Robert A. Haase, P. Charles Jones, Barbara A. Kluka, Neal P. Nettesheim, Michael N. Nowakowski, Peter G. Pappas, Patrick T. Sheedy, Michael J. Skwierawski, and Lee E. Wells.
"Judge Flanagan’s demeanor, patience, and respect for every single person made her courtroom practically stress-free,” Tarrant said. She is a “remarkably accomplished teacher, mentor, and jurist.”
She knows when to take time to listen, and knows the importance of treating people with dignity and respect – whether a victim, defendant, witness, or member of the State Bar, according to Jane Foley, victim witness supervisor for the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. “She is a true public servant whose dedication has had a tremendous impact on the lives of so many people in need within our community.”
“Her entire legal career has been shaped by her high ideals,” said attorney David Cross of Milwaukee.
Join the Celebration
Judge Flanagan will receive her award at the Member Recognition Celebration starting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 16, 2016, at the 2016 State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference in Green Bay. All are welcome to join in the celebration.