Thinking of a Milwaukee County Circuit courtroom, the last commandment of Christ isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to most people’s minds.
But it’s different for Judge Audrey Skwierawski.
“If you can carry that commandment out every day, no matter what job you have, you’re a lucky person,” she said. “I get to live that every day in the courtroom, and what could be better?”
For Skwierawski, appointed to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court’s Branch 41 in 2018, presiding over cases dealing with juvenile offenders is an opportunity that “ties all the things I love to do in one place, one job, one calling.”
It’s the culmination of a journey that started back at Pius XI High School in 1981. That’s when Skwierawski was just a freshman and her father, the Hon. Michael Skwierawski (at the time himself a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge) told her she needed to choose between the forensics club and debate team for extracurricular involvement.
“I picked debate, and it was just love at first sight,” said Skwierawski. “Once I saw these students getting in there and researching a topic, speaking eloquently, arguing a topic — I can’t describe it.”
Though she was also involved in other extracurricular activities during her time at Pius, including running cross country and performing in the musicals, it was debate that really defined her time at the school. She even earned a debate scholarship to Northwestern University, where she studied after graduating from Pius in 1985. After Northwestern, it was on to Georgetown Law School and, after that, practice in a private firm.
But just a few years into her career, Skwierawski felt drawn to the prosecutor’s office. She had learned how to argue at Pius, certainly — but she had also learned about service, and now she wanted to combine the two.
“Everything at Pius was in this context of service,” she said. “I got really intensive, high-level training on how to debate and think on my feet and research, but the Catholic environment of Pius gave me the commitment to use that skill for change and to be of service to other people.”
She went on to spend 14 years as a prosecutor in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, where she developed a passion for the tough cases involving domestic violence and sexual assault.
“A lot of people think, ‘Isn’t that depressing, to see the worst in people?’” she said. “But I also got to see the best in people. I got to see people’s resilience, I got to fight for justice for people who were not in a position to be able to fight for it themselves.”
In 2008, she became the coordinator for the City of Milwaukee’s Commission on Domestic Violence, a role she held for two years before being tapped to work at the state level in the attorney general’s office.
“They had gotten a grant from the Violence Against Women Act and wanted to hire a prosecutor to train other prosecutors in how to do domestic violence and sexual assault cases,” she said. “I got to do what I love and I got to do it all over the state, with wonderful people.”
But when a vacancy came up on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, she felt inspired to apply. Governor Scott Walker appointed Skwierawski to the judgeship in March 2018.
She and her husband, Frank, to whom she has been married for 22 years, are the parents of two children, including one Pius graduate. The family belongs to St. Sebastian Parish in Milwaukee, where Skwierawski grew up.
Skwierawski said that her devotion to the justice system doesn’t blind her to its shortcomings — but the potential for healing both victims and defendants who enter a courtroom is what compels her to keep showing up.
“It’s true that we have huge numbers, that we have huge challenges, that justice isn’t always as on time as we would like,” she said of the justice system. “There are these limitations to our system. But there is also tremendous potential for healing people who have been through something hurtful or something very difficult.”