Diane Sykes: Newest Supreme Court Justice
Recently elected to
a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Justice Diane Sykes
adheres to a conservative judicial philosophy, which she describes as
rooted in the principles of separation of powers and judicial restraint.
by Dianne Molvig
Wisconsin's young people have a clearer sense of the workings of the
state's highest court, thanks to increased public outreach efforts in
recent years. But Alex and Jay Sykes, the eight- and 11-year-old sons of
the newest supreme court justice, Diane Sykes, have a view of the court
that's unique among the state's school-aged children.The two boys see
firsthand not only the esteem that comes with a justice position, but
also the behind-the-scenes homework.
I will try very hard not to be a
results-oriented jurist who figures out how he or she wants the case to
come out and then makes the law fit that result. Rather, I'll start at
the beginning of the legal analysis and work outward from there."
Supreme Court Justice Diane Sykes
On one recent Sunday night, some 100 supreme court petitions lay in
three eight-inch stacks on the Sykes household's kitchen counter. The
boys asked their mother what all that paper was. She jokingly told them
it was the reading she had to do that night after they'd gone to bed, to
which Alex responded, "Oh, Mom, I never want to be a supreme court
In truth, those piles represented more than one night's worth of
reading, Sykes confesses. Still, getting used to the enormous amount of
reading is one of the key adjustments she's had to make since last
September, when she switched from being a Milwaukee County circuit court
judge to becoming a supreme court justice, appointed by Gov. Tommy
Thompson to fill the vacancy left by Justice Donald Steinmetz's
Pursuing Judicial Appointment
Sitting in her office two weeks to the day after her April 4
election, Sykes notes she hasn't had much chance yet to experience the
"normal" life of a supreme court justice. During the previous seven
months, she not only was learning the ropes in her new job, but also
living the life of a judicial candidate, traveling around the state to
speak to civic groups and local bar associations. "There were lots of
late nights and early mornings ... a lot of personal campaigning that
had to be done," she says. (The State Bar Board of Governors voted
unanimously at its April 14-15 meeting to commend both Sykes and Louis
Butler for their issues-oriented campaigns.)
Sykes knew she was in for a double-duty existence when she decided
last summer to pursue the supreme court appointment. "I had many
heart-to-hearts," she says, "with those who had been through it - Janine
Geske, most significantly. She's been a good friend to me and a mentor.
I had serious discussions with her and others about the challenges and
the disruptions of my family life that this would represent."
Ultimately, Sykes decided the extra effort would be worth it - "a
short-term investment for a long-term opportunity," she says. At 42,
she's the youngest member of the state supreme court.
Wisconsin's newest supreme court justice, Diane Sykes, meets with the
media after her swearing-in ceremony in September 1999.
Growing up in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer, she was the second
oldest in a family of five children, whose parents had long careers in
public service. Her mother, now deceased, was a high school guidance
counselor. Her father, a civil engineer, was the city manager of Brown
Deer, and later director of the Milwaukee County Department of
Transportation, Public Works and Development.
Sykes, too, felt drawn to some type of public service as a young
adult, and she viewed a law degree as one route toward that end. But in
college she explored another career that fascinated her: journalism. She
got her journalism degree from Northwestern University, after which she
worked for more than a year as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal.
Then the idea of law school resurfaced. Already married, "I decided if I
was going to go to law school," she says, "I'd better do it sooner
rather than later, when kids and a mortgage would come along."
It was after law school, while working as a law clerk for Terence
Evans, then a federal judge in Wisconsin's Eastern District and now with
the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, that Sykes' vision of her
legal career began to crystalize. "Judge Evans is not only one of our
best judges," Sykes says, "but also a wonderful person - and a mentor.
He's the sort of judge who doesn't have his law clerks sitting in their
offices doing research and writing memos. He involved us in every aspect
of the job, and that was inspirational to me. I decided if I got the
opportunity to pursue a judicial position, I'd do it."
That opportunity arose after Sykes had been in private law practice
for seven years. The Wisconsin Legislature's 1990-92 biennial budget
created three new circuit court judgeships for Milwaukee County,
effective in 1992. "I saw that as a golden opportunity to pursue the
goal of becoming a judge," Sykes says. She won in 1992 against two other
opponents and was reelected unopposed in 1998.
Early Retirement Prompts Run
Sykes had not considered running for Steinmetz's place on the supreme
court bench, should he have decided to retire at the end of his term.
But when Steinmetz announced his early retirement in July 1999, Sykes
tossed her hat into the ring to be considered for appointment - for a
couple of key reasons. "I saw the court as being at a crossroads with
this appointment," she says.
First was the issue of geographic balance. Steinmetz's departure
meant there would be no one on the state supreme court from Milwaukee
County. Because of the volume and complexity of cases, both criminal and
civil, that judges hear in Wisconsin's most populous county, "I felt it
was important that someone be appointed from Milwaukee County circuit
court, having had that base of experience and perspective," Sykes
Second, "I saw that the philosophical bent of the court was going to
be an issue," she says. "I felt I had something to contribute in that
area, as well." Throughout her judicial career, Sykes has adhered to a
conservative judicial philosophy, which she describes as rooted in the
principles of separation of powers and judicial restraint. "I will try
very hard not to be a results-oriented jurist," she says, "who figures
out how he or she wants the case to come out and then makes the law fit
that result. Rather, I'll start at the beginning of the legal analysis
and work outward from there."
Although the decision-making processes in the supreme court and
circuit courts differ greatly, Sykes says her seven years of experience
on the circuit bench are invaluable to her now as a justice. "I can look
at a trial court record or decision," she says, "and have a real sense
of what went on. I can look at a petition for review and, based on my
experience in circuit court, I can say that, yes, this issue comes up
all the time, and we should hear this case because the lower courts need
guidance. Or that issue isn't substantial; it doesn't come up enough. Or
the law is settled, and the supreme court doesn't need to weigh in.
Having that perspective has helped me in the transition" to becoming a
Justice Sykes visits with Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice
Shirley Abrahamson. With Justice Sykes are her two sons, Jay and
Now Sykes is adapting to another transition: being a justice who no
longer has to hit the campaign trail on the side. She commutes to
Madison from Milwaukee eight days a month, on average, when the court is
in session for oral arguments or conferences. The rest of the time she's
in Milwaukee, where she reads, researches, and writes at home or in a
small office at the county courthouse.
What little free time she has revolves around Alex and Jay, and
trying to be there for their activities. For that reason, throughout her
career Sykes has taken on limited outside professional activities, such
as board and committee appointments. A key exception was serving on the
Legislature's Criminal Penalty Study Committee, which helped implement
the new truth-in-sentencing legislation. "That was very important to
me," she says. "It's a substantial reform in the criminal justice system
- the biggest sea change in the way we sentence people in this state to
come along in 25 years. I understood that the work of this committee
would have substantial impact on the implementation of that reform. So I
sought out that appointment."
In addition, Sykes has been active in teaching criminal law procedure
as a faculty member of the Wisconsin Judicial College. That will
continue, she expects, now that she's a justice.
But on this particular April afternoon she has more immediate plans
in mind: The next day she's heading out with her two sons for a five-day
vacation. "I didn't allow myself to think past the election," she says.
"Then last week, I managed to book a quick trip to Florida."
With the election behind her, Sykes and her sons are "settling into a
nice rhythm of my Milwaukee days and Madison days," she says, "and
having a chance to restore balance" in their lives. And when they return
from vacation, she can begin to get a clearer picture of what being a
supreme court justice - rather than a combination justice/candidate - is
really like. Says Sykes, "I'm looking forward to that."
Dianne Molvig operates Access
Information Service, a Madison research, writing, and editing service.
She is a frequent contributor to area publications.