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Justice Steinmetz remembered for dedicated service

Madison, Wisconsin - September 4, 2013

Justice SteinmetzJustice Donald W. Steinmetz, who retired from the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1999 after 19 years of service, passed away on Saturday, Aug. 31 in Milwaukee.  He was 88.

Steinmetz was elected to the Court in 1980, edging out an opponent who would later become a good friend – and a Supreme Court justice in his own right – Louis J. Ceci.  In 1990, Steinmetz was reelected to the seat over challenger Richard S. Brown, who is now chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

Steinmetz once was described by veteran newspaper reporter Cliff Miller as looking "so much like a judge, he could play one in the movies."  But, Miller added, "He probably couldn't win the part. He's too gregarious to fit the stuffy Hollywood stereotype."

Steinmetz said that his only hobby was the fine art of conversation. Both he and his wife, Marjorie, who survives him, were active in a variety of civic and social organizations and in the activities of their three daughters and two sons.

As a young man, Steinmetz dreamed of becoming a political science professor. He was determined that this course of action would be preferable to following his father and two brothers into the practice of law. But then reality set in.  In 1949, with one child and another on the way, he calculated that a law degree would cost a lot less and pay off sooner than a Ph.D.

After graduating from the UW Law School in just two years, Steinmetz took a job at an insurance company and then worked in the Milwaukee City Attorney's Office and the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office. In 1966, he was elected to the bench in Milwaukee County by a small margin that was upheld in a recount. His campaign, he recalled, consisted largely of door-to-door visits, handing out matchbooks and, once, funding an ad on the side of a Milwaukee bus after his opponent "bought up all the billboards."

Steinmetz served on the bench in Milwaukee until his 1980 election to the Supreme Court.

In a 2001 interview for the Wisconsin court system's Oral History Project, Steinmetz recalled handling 200 small claims cases and performing six weddings on his first day on the bench in Milwaukee County.

"I think there were only six county judges at the time in Milwaukee County, and I think the five of them got together and gave me the small claims calendar," he said.

Steinmetz' former colleagues on the Supreme Court praised his work on opinions and his contribution to the many court system committees on which he served.

"Justice Steinmetz … dedicated much of his professional life as a lawyer to public service," said Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson. "He served well, not just as a Supreme Court justice, but also as a Milwaukee county judge, circuit court judge, assistant state attorney general, assistant district attorney and assistant city attorney in Milwaukee. Our condolences go to his family."

Justice David T. Prosser Jr., who joined the Supreme Court just one year before Steinmetz' retirement, called Steinmetz "A great justice and a wonderful human being." Prosser went on to say that, "Although he was an expert in insurance law, he also wrote memorable opinions on many subjects, including the rights of protectively placed individuals, criminal law including juror bias, and the constitutionality of school choice.  He will be greatly missed."

A full obituary can be found here.

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