Milwaukee Talks: Judge Derek Mosley
Judge Derek Mosley, a graduate of Marquette Law School, worked as a prosecutor for the City of Milwaukee for eight years before he became a judge at 31, making him the youngest African-American judge in the history of the state.
"It thrust upon me much more responsibility," says Mosley. "'To whom much is given, much is expected.'"
For those who know him and his commitment to Milwaukee – particularly Milwaukee youth – Mosley has surpassed expectations on both sides of the bench and through social media where he often sends witty and informational messages signed by "Your Friendly Neighborhood Judge."
Mosley is a Milwaukeean truly working to improve the city and is the epitome of an unsung hero. In this latest installment of Milwaukee Talks, Mosley shares stories about courtroom shenanigans, growing up in Chicago, the possibility of a future reality TV show and his advice on how to make Milwaukee stronger.
OnMilwaukee.com: So what kinds of cases do you handle?
Derek Mosley: All municipal ordinance violations – retail thefts, assault and battery, marijuana, etc.– building code, health code – "dirty dining" – and juvenile cases.
OMC: How many cases do you handle a year?
OMC: What are some of the most outrageous things you've seen in your courtroom?
DM: Defendants dressed as clowns – floppy shoes and red nose – a defendant reaching in his pocket to turn his phone off and a bag of weed fell out, someone smoking in the courtroom. I had someone standing before me, whose phone rang, and they answered it and kept talking to the person on the other line, while they were standing before me. Many years ago I had a defendant on trial for carrying a concealed weapon where they pulled the knife out while on the stand to show me that it wasn't that menacing. How he got through security I will never know. Since then we have improved our court security.
OMC: Your position is an elected position, right?
DM: Right. I'm elected every four years. I was appointed to the bench in 2002 and I've been reelected every four years. The next election is in 2015.
OMC: What would you do if you didn't?
DM: Probably go into private practice, but I wouldn't mind teaching undergraduate level criminal justice classes.
OMC: You infuse humor in your courtroom quite often. Can you expound?
DM: By its very nature, court is an adversarial process. I use humor to defuse situations. Someone is going to win, and someone is going to lose. We try to at least make the process fun.
OMC: You use social media, particularly Facebook, to educate people but again, you do it with so much humor. Was this a conscious decision?
DM: I thought about what gets shared the most on Facebook. Funny stuff. If I said, 'Today is New Year's Eve. Be careful,' nobody cares. But if I say 'Today is New Year's Eve and if you get picked up for drunk driving you're going to spend the rest of the night drinking toilet wine,' well, that gets shared. People respond to humor.
Social media is an amazing resource and a way for me to share a lot of important information with the community.
I'm also trying to merge cultures through social media. I have 4,000 friends on Facebook, and about 2,000 of them are black/Latino and 2,000 of them are white and they don't know each other. They all live in Milwaukee, they pass each other on the street on a daily basis, and yet, they don't intermingle. It doesn't make sense to me. I have to meld these groups.
There are fantastic neighborhoods in this city that many who live here don't know exist, or would be hard pressed to pick out on a map. Like Harambee/Bronzeville, Clarke Square, Halyard Park, Havenswood, Enderis Park, Grantosa Heights and Piggsville.
OMC: Where did you go to law school?
DM: I graduated from Marquette Law School in 1995, and I'm still involved with the school in helping recruit and retain law students of color. MULS is really committed to diversifying the Milwaukee legal community.
OMC: What did you do after law school?
DM: After interning with the FBI in (Washington) D.C. and the Army Judge Advocate General Corp (JAG) at Fort Carson (Colo.), I had aspirations of becoming a Special Agent or a JAG Officer, but I was offered a job with the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office as an assistant district attorney so I took it. Best decision I ever made. I loved my eight years there.
OMC: Did you always dream of being a judge?
DM: I think every prosecutor believes they can be a judge. I was no different, but I became a judge at 31 which made me the youngest African-American judge in the history of the state, and thrust upon me much more responsibility. "To whom much is given, much is expected."
OMC: How many African-American judges are there in the state of Wisconsin today?
DM: At all levels of the judiciary in the state there are 10. And five of us are Marquette grads. But out of the 252 municipal judges, there are only three of us (two are in the City of Milwaukee).
OMC: Did you have a career mentor?
DM: Judge Victor Manian. He was a Circuit Court judge and the first one I clerked for. He could sentence someone for life and they would walk away thanking him. I really admired his judicial temperament and wisdom. He gave me my first clerking job and I hope he is proud of his decision.
OMC: You have so much personality it's not surprising you're on the radio and, did I hear, potentially on television soon?
DM: I also do a radio show every second Friday of the month called "Here Comes the Judge" on 1290AM WMCS from 4 to 6 p.m. where I answer legal questions about Municipal Court and alert people to recent changes in the law. Some of the dialogue can be quite funny and informative.
I've been in very early talks with a production company in L.A. which is considering doing a reality show about night courts across the country, and my court has made the short list. I will keep you posted.
OMC: Where did you grow up?
DM: I grew up in Chicago. My dad worked for the phone company and my mom was an administrative assistant. They were very supportive of me. I have a sister who's a stay-at-home mom and stand-up comic in Chicago. We were a middle class family. I went to Catholic schools. Sorry, no big drama. But my worst-kept secret is that I'm a Bears fan.
OMC: What's it like being a Bears fan in Packerland?
DM: It's total hell, but like I tell Packers fans, if you moved to Chicago, would you become a Bears fan? Enough said.
OMC: You're married and have kids, right?
DM: Yes, I've been married to Kelly for 12 years. We have two little girls: Kallan is 7 and Kieran is 4. We live on the Northwest Side – I love it. Very diverse.
OMC: What is the best part of your job?
DM: When I'm pumping gas or at a restaurant or bar and someone walks up to me and says, 'Thank you. You gave me a second chance.' I get to effectuate change in people. Or at least make it easier for them to make a change in their lives. The best part is making a difference in Milwaukee. I haven't opened a new restaurant, art gallery, or bar/club, but hopefully what I do makes the quality of life better in Milwaukee, so those places can thrive.
I love that my job affords me the opportunity to officiate weddings. I do about 40 or so a year all over the state. Weddings allow me to truly be myself and hopefully bring happiness to two families. Great way to spend a weekend.
OMC: So what's the worst part of the job?
DM: The worst part is dealing with a system that is not equipped to handle people with mental illness. They are often perceived as being disrespectful, but if you have an untreated mental illness and you can't control your impulses, giving you a ticket doesn't help. Without viable treatment options, it can become a revolving door.
OMC: You see a lot of kids, too, right?
DM: Yes. There are so many kids in this city who live in such terrible situations, who really don't stand a chance due to no fault of their own. I've mentored a lot of kids who are responsible for finding their own food for themselves and often their siblings, too. Many of these kids always operate in survival mode, with their guards up because no one cares. Either they don't know how to be parents or don't care. Either way, I want to break the cycle of poverty and hardship – I want to stop it – but I can't do that from the bench. By the time I see them professionally the crime has already been done, so I use mentoring to meet these kids before they commit the crime.
To the world we are just one person, but to one person we can be the world.
OMC: What groups do you work with?
DM: I'm the president of the board of the YMCA urban campuses. I'm also on the board for the TransCenter for youth, Lad Lake/St. Rose Center, the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation, and I also serve in an advisory capacity to a great youth program called True Skool. I mentor a number of youth, one of whom I met here. He wasn't going to school and his mother thought he was just cutting out to be with his friends, but when I took him into my office and talked to the kid, it turned out he wasn't going because he was threatened by a gang member for dating his girlfriend. Mentoring him has completely changed his life. He is doing very well.
I also work with a lot of people to help them get their driver's license. A lot of jobs are west of the city, and you can't get there without a license.
Also, I'm really involved with the Fatherhood Initiative, a group which helps dads just starting to be a part of their kids' lives. I bring my own daughters to these events, so these dads see I'm with them. There's no book on how to be a good dad. It's tough. We learn many of these skills from emulating others. That's how I learned to be a good dad, by watching how my father did it.
OMC: You have become a go-to guy for restaurant recommendations. What are your thoughts on the Milwaukee food scene? What are you favorite restaurants?
DM: (Laughing) I love to eat. Milwaukee's food scene is amazing for a city of its size. I generally only eat at local establishments. I'm not a big chain restaurant guy. Whether its BBQ, steak, tapas, seafood, sushi, farm to table, food truck, soul, soups, pho, ethnic or gastropub. We have it all here in non-chain local form, and it's often healthier and less expensive than their chain counterparts. Some of my favorites are Braise, Carnevor, Odd Duck, Carini's La Conca D'oro, Paje, Smoke Shack, La Merenda, Mack's Southern Sweets & Café, Pass da Peas, Ashley's Que and Mr. Perkins to name a few. I could probably name 20 more.
OMC: What advice do you have for those of us who want to "help" Milwaukee get stronger?
DM: I'd like to flip the makers versus takers script from the last election. I want people to ask themselves what are they doing to make Milwaukee a better place or do they fall into the category of taking from what all Milwaukee has to offer with no give back. Do you take advantage of Milwaukee having professional sports, great theater, great nightlife, great museums, great ethnic festivals and concerts but then do nothing to make Milwaukee a better city? I'm not asking a lot.
Mentor – I would suggest the YMCA's Sponsor-A-Scholar Program – join a non-profit board in the city, volunteer at St. Ben's, join your neighborhood association, etc. All non-profit organizations need money to operate, but most need human capital, as well. Little things that can make a big difference.
OMC: Is Milwaukee a good city for African-Americans to live in? What are your thoughts on Milwaukee in general?
DM: I believe for some it is, however there are many things that need to change before I can give you a definite yes answer. Everything from schools, parental involvement and engagement, jobs, citizen / police relations, etc., but I love the potential of this city and I love all the great things going on here. There is no other place I would choose to live. Milwaukee has been very good to me.
I met Derek around 11 years ago and I can say with confidence that he is not only a great judge, but a wonderful, warm human being as well. I am proud to call you my friend, Derek. Happy Holidays to you and your family! Richard Kerhin
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