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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    June 10, 2024

    Women History Makers
    Judge Jo Deen Lowe – A Long Line of Strong Women

    Jo Deen Lowe, chief judge of the Ho-Chunk Nation Trial Court, was first in her family to graduate from law school. She shares in the legacy of colleagues in Indian law while working to leave a better justice system for those to come.

    Shannon Green

    Judge Jo Deen Lowe

    The foundations of Ho-Chunk society are compassion, respect, generosity, humility, bravery, and courage. “They should be the guiding principles of humanity,” says Judge Jo Deen Lowe, chief judge of the Ho-Chunk Nation Trial Court.

    Raised with those foundations, Lowe decided at a young age that she would become a lawyer. She had, in her youth, aided others too timid or unable to speak in their own defense or advocate for themselves. “I was influenced by my elders who were not shy about sharing their opinions. They cared about the well-being of the community and its members and instilled in me a clear moral and ethical guide,” she said.

    She also decided to pursue law and leadership positions because, she said, “of my desire to help individuals, families and my own Nation to identify the resources and tools that will be most beneficial to them.” Her work helps to preserve a way of life and provides access to justice, on top of “providing me with a way to care for my family and my pets.”

    Opening Pathways

    Judge Lowe is the first in her family to graduate from law school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies at Winona State University in 1981, then a law degree from the U.W. Law School in 1985.

    Starting in 1986, she served as in-house counsel for several of Wisconsin’s tribes and worked at the Great Lakes Intertribal Council. “I provided legal advice to the Menominee Tribe, where I did a brief stint as a prosecutor,” she said. She also worked in the Indian Law Unit of what was then known as Wisconsin Judicare and provided professional legal services for individuals and tribes.

    When she became Jackson County district attorney (DA) (1987-89), she was the youngest person to serve as a DA in Wisconsin. She admits to “a bit of a learning curve” as a young DA. “I was fortunate in the mentors that I found. My law school professors and the attorneys I clerked for in law school remained a reliable resource.”

    “I took on some difficult issues within the community involving racism, sexism, and government corruption. I was not returned to that office by the electoral process,” Judge Lowe said.

    In 1995, after working as the state-tribal liaison for the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council (1989-93) and then as staff attorney for the Ho-Chunk Nation (1993-94), she became the Ho Chunk Nation’s first attorney general. “The Nation had just adopted a new constitution with four branches (executive, legislative, judiciary, and General Council) to reflect a change from the previous Indian Reorganization Act government headed by the Wisconsin Winnebago Business Committee,” she said.

    After serving as staff attorney for the Oneida Tribe in Wisconsin (1998-2000), she became an associate supreme court justice in the Ho Chunk Nation’s appellate court. “I was elected to fill out the remainder of the term of my predecessor and sat on the appellate bench from October 2002 to 2005.”

    She then served for 11 years as deputy attorney general for the Forest County Potawatomi Community in Crandon.

    On Jan. 9, 2012, she was sworn in as chief judge of the Ho-Chunk Nation Trial Court. She was the Nation’s first female chief judge and the fourth chief judge in the trial court’s history.

    “During my first term, the Nation’s membership revised the constitution to require that the trial court judges be elected. Since that time, I have had the privilege to be returned to the chief judge’s post twice, most recently in July 2023.”

    Many Bridges

    Lowe noticed some differences, although not large ones, when practicing in Wisconsin courts and in tribal courts. The Ho-Chunk Nation’s court has different divisions, and the trial and supreme courts are based on a western European model. “The main difference that I observed was that tribal law and federal law were binding on the Menominee tribal folks. For criminal law, the existence of P.L. 280 left the other sovereign nations to determine what laws they would enact,” she said.

    Shannon GreenShannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.

    The Nation’s traditional court provides dispute resolution from traditional clan leaders – male elders from the 12 remaining clans and a representative from the Native American Church.

    The Nation also has a treatment court – the Healing to Wellness Court – that focuses on tribal members after conviction to reduce recidivism. Participants are offered the opportunity for reduced incarceration time in favor of treatment for substance use.

    Lowe served as the court’s presiding judge from 2013 to 2019. “It was my honor to facilitate the sobriety and path to wellness chosen by successful participants,” she said.

    “This is a good example of how state and tribal courts can collaborate. The Nation’s cultural component is acknowledged as an important element of the individual treatment plans.”

    Lowe found opportunities to bridge the practice areas and share knowledge with others about working with tribes. She was part of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Bridging the Gap effort.

    “I found that practitioners in Wisconsin had regular contact with tribes and their businesses, but yet had little knowledge of the concepts and principles of Indian law. I tried to provide a way to share that information with them,” she said.

    Increasing Access to Justice

    An ongoing statewide challenge in Wisconsin is access to justice, says Lowe. She serves on the board of the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission, representing the Wisconsin Tribal Judges Association.

    “The access to justice issues are so apparent in the rural areas,” Judge Lowe said. “Tribal people are further hindered in securing legal counsel because lawyers in general are unfamiliar with tribal law and tribal courts. Attorneys remain hesitant to invest their time and resources in expanding their practice to tribal courts.”

    ‘There is Room Enough for All of Us’

    Lowe’s inspirations in the legal profession include the Hon. Susan Steingass, “one of my professors who was creative, professional, and concerned for others,” along with Hill and Jo Swamp, who “lead by example and showed that hard work, dedication, and scholarly effort combined with a touch of humor is important. It is good to have the spirit and tenacity to set boundaries and zealously pursue legal representation in an honest and forthright manner.” Others include Diane Diel, Michelle Behnke, Sharon House, and Cheryl Fairbanks.

    “So many of my colleagues in the field of Indian law were inspiring to Indigenous women. It has been my privilege to share in this legacy while working to leave a better justice system for those to come,” Lowe said.

    With ongoing gender inequalities in the legal field, it is important, she says, that women in the legal profession support each other and push for equal pay, promotions, case assignments, and access to resources. “There is enough room for all of us here,” she said. Also, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t let fear get the best of you. Don’t let a job, a mentor, or a colleague convince you to compromise your own internal ethics or morals.”

    Like other people contacted for this series of women leaders in the law, Lowe is considered a “history maker.” “I’m humbled, a little intimidated, and motivated to continue to dedicate my future work to the service of my people and by extension all other Nations we come in contact with,” Lowe said.

    Among Lowe’s varied and many accomplishments, she finds particularly rewarding her work with the Nation’s Healing to Wellness Court, helping individuals and families to overcome their challenges, including substance use, and achieve stability. “Witnessing the healing and recovery of familial units gives me hope for future generations. Being a small part of that has made my career worthwhile,” she said.

    In Her Words: My Family’s History Makers Made It Possible for Me to Be

    “I am a member of the Hawk (Warrior) Clan. I come from a long line of strong women.

    “The Ho-Chunk people are indigenous to this area now known as Wisconsin. Through the course of the westward expansion of immigrants and U.S. government policies on how Indigenous people were viewed and treated, the Ho-Chunk People have survived and remained a part of the fabric of today’s world. Removal-era tactics of the U.S. military gained thousands of acres of land from the Ho-Chunk people for access by miners, timber companies, the military, farmers, and others.

    “Removal took the form of forced marches of elderly, children, women, and men to the west, with families broken up and forced to survive with what they could carry and the substandard rations provided by the government. Other removals included relatives loaded into cattle cars in the winter, again with little food, no shelter from the winds as they blew through the open slatted sides of the car for several days. Sickness, death, and certainly tears were parts of these efforts. Many did not complete the journey.

    “Upon arrival in the west, in the lands of the Omaha people, my relatives were sheltered in an open horse corral that had been designated as a processing center and encampment. It was guarded by a unit of African American soldiers. Our family tells of the kindness of the Omaha people who shared what they had, and of the humanity and dignity that their captors showed them while there.

    “My great-great grandmother and her sisters determined, like so many Ho-Chunks, to return to their homeland in the east. When the opportunity arose, the three women and their children made their way back by escaping, traveling by night in the fall and early winter of the year. They followed the Missouri River down to its confluence with the Mississippi and were able to continue their passage, always fearful of being caught. Up the Mississippi to the confluence with the La Crosse and Black Rivers, eventually to return home.

    “Ours is an oral history, and regrettably much of the detail has been lost through time, but it is that willful struggle to maintain our family, our tribe, and the society that had existed for thousands of years. These strong women, with little food, small children, and few resources, returned to this place and this tribe.

    “It is in honor of them and all those who did not survive misguided government policies, racism, and the infliction of harm on this earth that I continue to seek justice. My career has been guided by this and other family history.

    “I hope this helps in understanding that my family’s history makers made it possible for me to be.”

    Making History: Four Ways to Celebrate 150 Years of Women in the Law

    Making History: Four Ways to Celebrate 150 Years of Women in the Law

    Join Wisconsin’s legal community in celebrating 150 years of women in the law. Here are four ways that you, your law firm, or the local legal community can recognize the significant contributions women have made to Wisconsin’s legal history.

    Governor Proclaims June 17 as Wisconsin Women Lawyers Day

    To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lavinia Goodell becoming Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer, Gov. Tony Evers has proclaimed June 17, 2024, as Wisconsin Women Lawyers Day. The proclamation praises Goodell for pioneering a path for women in the legal profession across the state and for facing with unwavering resilience the many obstacles thrown in her path.

    Commemorating Goodell’s Admission: June 17 in Janesville

    To celebrate this historical milestone, a consortium of women lawyers is hosting a commemoration of Lavinia Goodell’s admission on Monday, June 17, 2024, which is the anniversary of Goodell’s admission in Rock County.

    Everyone is invited to attend the program at 5 p.m. in the Rock County Courthouse, 51 S. Main St., Janesville. A reception will follow at the nearby Genisa Wine Bar, 11 N. Main St., Janesville (cash bar). There is no cost for the program or reception, but RSVPs are requested for planning purposes. Send replies to

    Exploring Legal Developments Affecting Women: June 20 in Green Bay

    The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting & Conference in Green Bay will include a special continuing legal education program exploring some important Wisconsin legal developments affecting women and the women lawyers who advanced them. The program, at 3:15 p.m. on Thursday, June 20, will begin with a welcome by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. Topics covered will include:

    • Lavinia Goodell and the right to practice law;

    • Equal pay for equal work;

    • Married women’s right to own property and have credit;

    • Indigenous women’s legal identity, jurisdiction, and missing and murdered Indigenous women; and

    • Women as legal peacemakers: collaborative divorce, mediation, and restorative justice.

    Reenacting Goodell’s Admission: Aug. 8 at Old World Wisconsin

    Old World Foundation will host a program celebrating the 150th anniversary of Lavinia Goodell’s admission to practice law in Wisconsin. This program will take place at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 8, during “Kids Get in Free” week.

    “Old World Wisconsin is Wisconsin’s premier living history attraction that shares the stories of the past through hands-on activities,” says Gwen Griffin, executive director of Old World Foundation. “Thus, this reenactment is the perfect program to bring to the site.”

    This year, Old World Foundation is also celebrating the 40-year fundraising partnership with Old World Wisconsin.

    To Learn More

    » Cite this article: 97 Wis. Law. 61-64 (June 2024).

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