As a judge, he is fair and he is balanced, according to observers. Participants in the legal system say he is neither a plaintiff’s judge, nor is he a defendant’s judge.He is Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Michael P. Sullivan and he is the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Judge of the Year.Milwaukee trial attorney Kelly L. Centofanti of Aiken & Scoptur S.C. said Sullivan deserved the award.“I can’t remember hearing one negative comment about him, ever,” Centofanti said. “I don’t say that lightly.Centofanti noted that even good judges have detractors, or they have been known to make mistakes. However, she has not heard those things said of Sullivan. Additionally, she observed, Sullivan is willing to listen to attorneys and work with them.“He is fair,” she said. “I’ve never heard anyone question his integrity.“He’s not known as a plaintiffs’ judge or a defense judge. He’s just known as a good, fair judge.”Sullivan said that perception is one of the things he has striven to maintain and one of the things about which he is most proud.“That’s a judge’s job,” Sullivan said during a recent interview in his chambers. “If I’m perceived as fair then I must be doing something right.”
Looking at both sides
That balance is something a judge has to work toward achieving. Judges cannot approach the bench with an agenda and keep that balance, he said. One thing that helps is to realize it’s not just the plaintiff’s case and it’s not just the defendant’s case.“You have to want to maintain that balance,” Sullivan explained. “You must be willing to listen to both sides and try to see both sides’ positions.”The veteran judge, who recently celebrated 22 years on the bench, would like to see attorneys approach cases with the same open minds. That does not mean that the attorneys would forget to be advocates for their clients’ positions, he noted. However, he does not like it when attorneys cannot see the other side’s position.Sometimes, Sullivan observed, attorneys get so caught up in being advocates for their clients that they take “clearly indefensible positions.” Although it is not a big problem, he said, there are times when he would like to see lawyers taking positions that are more reasonable.“What I would like to see in the criminal arena — this has always been a goal of mine — is to see the district attorneys have to act as defense lawyers some of the time and the defense lawyers act as prosecutors,” Sullivan said. “I think it would foster a much greater understanding of the other side’s position.”Sullivan noted that the only arena where he sees that happen is during divorce proceedings. One time, a lawyer will represent a wife; the next time, the same lawyer will represent a husband. One time the client may be the breadwinner and the next time the client may have limited means.“They have a much more balanced understanding of what the court must do,” he explained.Of all the divisions Sullivan has experienced while serving as a judge, he described the Family Division as “the most fun.”“I know a lot of judges don’t like it but I think you do more judging in the Family Division than you do anywhere else,” he observed.In that setting, he said, the judge makes all of the decisions pertaining to custody, placement, property division, maintenance, or any other divorce issues. Although it’s not always easy, he added, it is always interesting. That aspect of the judicial role is one of Sullivan’s favorites.“One thing I like about being a judge is that you are never bored,” he said. “Every case has nuances that are so interesting. … It doesn’t matter if the case is $50 or $50 million because it’s still interesting.”From early on, Sullivan had in the back of his mind that he would become a judge. He was attracted to the independence of the position, which he also thought would be intellectually stimulating.
Twenty-two years on the bench
Sullivan took the bench on Jan. 3, 1978.“One of the nice things about being a judge in Milwaukee — and I’m sure it’s this way throughout the state — is the integrity of the people I deal with,” he said.“I also like the fact that I get to work with some of the best minds in our society,” he added. “They are bright, they are creative and they continuously challenge me.”In addition to his judicial responsibilities, Sullivan serves the deputy chief of the First Judicial District.Chief Judge Michael Skwierawski said Sullivan is equally adept at handling both the administrative and judicial roles. Skwierawski praised Sullivan’s efficiency and hard work.“Mike Sullivan has been a consistently high performer here in Milwaukee, doing quality work in every division in which he has served,” Skwierawski said. “I think the lawyers, litigants and people who have appeared in his court have all come to realize that very quickly.“He is one of my principle consultants and advisors on administrative policy decisions that I make. … He has extensive experience and the respect of judges across the board in the district.”Sullivan observed that the bench and bar will have to address the proliferation of pro se litigants in the court system. The growth in unrepresented litigants results from two factors — simple economics and a growing sense of self reliance, he explained.The biggest issue arises from the growing cost of legal representation and an increase in people who cannot afford it. The bar, as a whole, needs to address that issue.“As a service profession, we have to make our services available to people,” Sullivan said. “The law does not exist for the lawyers, it exists for the people.”In response to the increase of people handling their own divorces, he said, a pro se group has set up in the third floor of the courthouse to help people with that endeavor. Sullivan also explained that the First District is in the process of getting a pro se coordinator to work in the areas of divorce and small claims.The judicial system will also have to continue looking at ways to keep cases moving through the system, Sullivan observed. He is proud to have helped in that endeavor the last time he served in the Civil Division.Sullivan was involved in drafting a new scheduling order designed to help keep civil cases from bogging down the system. They established a greater use of pre-trials before an actual trial date was set. That allowed the system to screen out some of the cases that were never destined to make it to trial. It also allowed judges to set firmer trial dates once some of the preliminary work had taken place.Another project in which he was proud to have participated was the Civil Jury Instruction Committee. The judge explained participating in the writing of those instructions was very rewarding.Finally, looking back at more than two decades on the bench, Sullivan said, he was pleased with the opportunities it allowed both professionally and personally.From a personal perspective, he was able to work hours that were, more or less, traditional. That allowed him to spend time with his son and daughter, who are 26 and 23 respectively, and to be involved in their lives as they grew. It also gave him a chance to enjoy many of his hobbies including cooking, golfing, skiing and music.“I’m proud to have been able to serve the citizens of Milwaukee for 22 years,” he said.