Life In Circles: The Judge.

August 28, 2016
Judge Susan Sniegowski

Judge Susan Sniegowski

#MasonCountyPeople #LifeInCircles

Life In Circles by Stephanie Wagner.

Sponsored by Pro-Master Carpet Cleaning, 231-757-9061,promastercarpetcleaning.com.

It is rare for an interview setting to intimidate me. I have years of classrooms, boardrooms, auditoriums, and home visits to fall back on. I have learned to be present with grieving parents in hospitals, nervous women in coffee shops, and completely overwhelmed families in kitchens. I am, as they say, a trained professional.

Last week was an entirely new experience for me.  When 51st Circuit Judge Susan Sniegowski suggested I come to her office to meet with her, I didn’t think twice. This is all about talking with people where they are most comfortable.  I quickly agreed, grateful that she was willing to take time out of her extremely busy schedule to talk with me.

My first twinge of anxiety came when I realized that my typical summer uniform of flip flops and jogging shorts might not be appropriate to wear when meeting a judge.  Perhaps a skirt and a shirt that covered my tattoos might be a better choice.

The second came when I pulled up and parked in front of the massive brick courthouse building. The last time I had been there was when we finalized the adoptions of our children over 12 years ago. Family Court is in the basement, and Circuit Court is upstairs.

As I climbed the substantial steps, I couldn’t help but notice the weight of the space. It was as if the fear, despair, and just plain bad news permeated every surface.  When I finally found my way to the correct offices, I waited in line between a thin couple and their young child. As they resolved their dispute, I took in the high ceilings, heavy oak doors, and protective plexiglass receptionist window.

Finally, the window was freed and I was greeted with a smile. A pleasant dark haired woman guided me through two more sets of intimidating doors, and finally I was ushered into Judge Sniegowski’s office.

Behind a massive and surprisingly uncluttered desk, sat the same Susan that I met several years ago at a Great Start Parent Coalition meeting.  Her down to earth smile and matter of fact nature remained unchanged. I could relax.

promaster 111813We chatted about the usual – our children, the beautiful summer weather, an upcoming professional development trip she had planned. The fact that she was able to tackle tiling her bathroom, teaching herself how to do it by watching a You Tube video. Tiled. Her. Bathroom. Was there anything this strong woman couldn’t do?

It turns out, not yet.

In 2004, Susan became the first female prosecuting attorney for Mason County. Then in 2015, she took office as the first female judge in the 51st Circuit, which covers Mason and Lake counties.

“I didn’t set out to break down gender roles, or become the first anything.  I just chose a path and stuck to it. I knew what I wanted to do, and there was no reason for me not to.

“When I was making the decision about grad school, I was in between English and law. I wanted to teach at the college level – that much I knew  – but when I got the results of my GRE and LSAT back, it became very clear that law was the right path.

“I am very analytical. Law was a perfect fit, and had more options than English. I could still write if I wanted to, I could teach, but I could also practice.”

So at the age of 28, Susan packed her bags and moved to Denver from her home in Columbus, Ohio.

While enrolled at the University of Denver, Susan landed an internship with the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office, which solidified her interest in criminal law.

“I knew early on that I loved criminal law, and I learned a lot from that experience. I was in the courtroom from day 1, and spent almost all of my time there during the entire internship.

“There is an interesting combination of a very set framework and rules, but yet the facts change all the time. It is consistent and yet always fluctuating.  I was very certain that my path would be in litigation, and eventually a judgeship.”

Susan, a Michigan native who spent her childhood in both the Ludington and Midland areas, set a goal of returning to Michigan to practice.

“I always knew I wanted to come back to Michigan. I considered a Michigan law school, but felt that living in a Colorado would give me more diverse experiences. There was never any question about where I wanted to end up though, so when I finished school, I came back to Lansing to take the Michigan Bar Exam.”

She immediately applied for a posting in the Ludington area with the firm Nicholson and Krusniak.

When she was hired, she was only the third woman practicing law in Ludington. She joined Connie Krusniak, the co-owner of the firm, and Laura Thompson.

“I honestly never thought about it in terms of gender. Of course, it was in the back of my mind – but I don’t stop to ask permission. I’m just going about my business, doing what I do. I’m qualified, I work hard, I embody the qualities that are needed to make a good lawyer and judge. That is all that matters.”

Susan credits great role models for her confidence.

“When I was growing up, my parents had high expectations but were also incredibly supportive.  If we were interested in something, my mom would find someone who could mentor us. She would help us get connected so that we could learn more. The message was that I could do anything I set my mind to – no excuses.”

Susan is the fourth generation of women in her family to be college educated, highlighting the value of education.

“College was not even a question, and there was a reasonable expectation that we would do postgraduate work. My great-grandmother, who was born in the late 1800s, went to school and got her degree in accounting. It was unheard of at the time, and her parents wouldn’t let her accept any of the banking jobs she was offered. That became part of our family legacy.”

Susan also recognizes that she couldn’t do what she does without a strong support network.

“I’m very fortunate in that I have many supports where others experience barriers. I have resources, especially a supportive husband, close friends, and a large family network that can get me through the tough spots.”

Her family helped her campaign for both the prosecuting attorney position, and the judgeship in 2014.

“My mom came and spent the summer when I was campaigning. It was wonderful because I had the time to coordinate, to plan, and to just be present because I knew that everything was taken care of.

“I loved the campaign process. Of course, it was busy and tiring at times.  But it was also hopeful and exciting. I truly enjoyed the time I spent, just going door to door, connecting with the people in our community and hearing their stories. There are so many impressive people and great things happen in our area.”

Susan approaches her work with the same matter of fact perspective that appears to be a guiding principle.

“I always try to remember that when I see people, it’s a normal Tuesday to me – but to them, it might be the worst day of their life.  I want them to understand that actions always have consequences, and to think through those. We all make mistakes, but not everyone knows how to take personal responsibility for them.  There is a constant tension of the benefit and detriment of what happens in court.”

Susan considers recognizing subtleties a gift of age and experience.

“It has been 17 years since I started this journey.  I don’t think the work has changed me as much as the wisdom that comes with getting older.  I think we are more able to see nuances, to not be so concrete. I’ve learned how to sort through priorities better, and to recognize that those change day to day.  I’m always looking out one to two months, and making a plan.

“What is important right now, what are the intermediate steps, and what does the long term look like.  It is how I approach almost everything. If I need help, I am not afraid to ask for it.”

Her best advice? Don’t be afraid of failure.

“Failure is always an option – that’s OK. You can’t let that stop you.  It is always worth trying. You will either figure it out, or you won’t. Either way, you will have learned something.”

That is definitely a message we can all relate to.

 

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