Brennan Becomes Milwaukee County’s Chief Jurist
By Tammy L. Cantillon
is a name synonymous with achievement. One Brennan clan has bred the likes
of a former Notre Dame football coach, a handful of men successfully involved
in the legal community and perhaps the most accomplished, the judge of
all judges in Milwaukee County: Chief Judge Kitty K. Brennan.
However, a meeting with Brennan at Milwaukee County Courthouse doesn’t
necessarily mean one involving a jury and gavel. Her office is on the sixth
floor of the massive limestone structure that overlooks Milwaukee’s downtown.
Guests show a security guard their shoes (he tells them that the procedure
is a security measure to ensure no one is concealing a weapon) and stand
among a crowd waiting for one of the two functioning elevators.
Milwaukee’s courthouse and surrounding streets have long been under
renovation and repairs. In the crush, an attorney, who had easily bypassed
security with an identification card, advises a young and nervous client.
Another waiting woman says loudly to no one in particular, "if you’re gonna
fix anything around here, fix these elevators!"
The Chief Judge wears a vibrant green blazer, cheerfully showing off
her office. Covering several desks and cabinets are pictures of Brennan’s
large Irish family, including her husband, Atty. Joe Murphy, and four college-age
children. A humorous picture of her and four other judges dressed as The
Supremes stands out, with a wink toward the Supreme Court, as well as the
Taking up one wall is a paper quilt made for her by students at Rawson
Elementary School in South Milwaukee. It’s Brennan’s favorite, photographed
for her first courtroom. Her office, however, has an limited view of outside
heating ducts, pipes, black tar, and gravel.
Brennan, who immediately admits she’s "not a very formal gal," enthusiastically
talks about her traditional Irish-American upbringing. The oldest of a
brood of eight children, Brennan’s namesake was her grandmother, and is
not a shortened version of the more conventional Catherine. As "Kitty,"
she’s heard her share of Gunsmoke jokes, harkening back to the formidable
heroine of the old television series.
Her last name has also been a challenge. Brennan laughs as she remembers
growing up in the shadow of her Uncle Terry, who found success as a Notre
Dame Football coach in the late 1950s. He became a frequent topic when
the younger, and ardent feminist, female Brennan interviewed for jobs.
"His career has followed me my entire life," she says, "but I learned to
forgive him when I began getting jobs because he was my uncle."
A hard-working woman, Brennan hasn’t been without a job since she was
16. Her earlier stints included waitressing and home cleaning, but her
fondest memories are of teaching English to pupils at Waukesha South High
School. "Being a judge and a teacher are equally difficult," she explains,
"and really, both involve teaching."
Circuit Court Judge Mel Flanagan enters the room and is asked to weigh
in on the merits of a new publicity picture. Brennan points out how young
she looks in an older photo, but the newer image better represents her
Brennan admits she loves to talk, so she doesn’t take much prompting.
"I am so gabby," she says jokingly, "I’m sorry." And, as Chief Judge, Brennan
has little time for much outside the courtrooom or for office matters such
as proposed county budget cuts and security issues. Volunteer work, she
mentions, is almost out of the question, because in her position, she is
prohibited from performing any fund-raising activities.
"Family is very important, and we try to spend a lot of time together,"
she says, however, "and I like to garden and read when I can." She points
out that she’s particularly fond of the poetry of William Yeats, and has
always liked Dubliners by James Joyce. She sometimes gets enough
time to watching a movie or two, admitting that the more recent Irish immigrant
experience movie, In America, brought her to tears.
Asked if she’s experienced any celebrity treatment as a result of her
powerful position, she instantly walks over to her desk and brings the
following framed quote from Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder
Q: "How can you be both a mother and a congresswoman?"
A: "I have a uterus and a brain and they both work."
Brennan explains how much she admires this quote and says it’s been
on her desk "forever."
"I’m a normal gal," she admits, "I pick up my laundry just like everyone
Although Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has decided to cut
court staffing by 25%, with Brennan subsequently in a resulting battle
of the budget, she remains optimistic about serving as Chief Judge.
She’s especially proud to be the first woman in her position. "It was
about time" a woman assumed that role, Brennan asserts. She knows she won’t
be Chief Judge forever, but doesn’t aspire to work at the federal level.
"I’m not familiar with the way things work at the federal level," she continues,
"I love this city and enjoy the kinds of things I do here."
She’s not opposed to teaching again someday, but this Irish colleen
admits that she has more than enough on her plate right now. Perhaps a
small wooden mirror with a saying hanging by her door keeps her going.
A gift from Judge Maxine White, it says in bright and bubbly letters, "You