Supreme Court justice inspires students to ‘reach for the moon’


A sailboat is meant to take on tough waters. It’s not meant to just rest in the harbor. It’s up to the sailor to decide when the conditions are right to sail.

This is the metaphor Annette Ziegler, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, shared with students on Sept. 16 during a speaking engagement at Mount Mary University for the Leadership and the Law class.

“And you’re going to be a sailboat,” Ziegler said. “You have to decide: Do I sit in the harbor and play it safe all the time? Do I go out to sea?”

Ziegler’s heels clicked when she walked into Helfaer Hall, turning heads. Students and faculty were surprised to see a Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice decked from head-to-toe in an atlas-printed skirt, shiny pumps and a crisp blazer, while carrying a Louis Vuitton bag.

Approaching the podium, she spoke in a way that not only gained the audience’s attention but also made people feel comfortable. She made a joke about her appearance, saying that just because she is a judge, people assume that she is old and hunched over. A justice can be of any gender, race, culture or religion.

“Sometimes I hear comments that I don’t really look like a Supreme Court Justice,” Ziegler said. “I believe in people being treated fairly and equally, but in many cases we’re not quite there yet.”

Ziegler’s own path to sea wasn’t obvious from the start. There was no family history of lawyers. In fact, she didn’t know any judges. Her family owned a hardware store where she swept floors growing up.

She studied psychology and business at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. An aptitude test and a lingering curiosity convinced her to consider studying law. When she suggested the prospect to her family, they acted as if they had expected it for years. She went on to earn her law degree from Marquette University.

“Sometimes things come to you in a different way and you need to be open to it,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler was four months pregnant when she ran for the Washington County Circuit Court judge position, making her the first female jurist of Washington County. That was 1997. Ten years later she was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

“Women can be a lot of things,” Ziegler said. “They’re amazing!”

She recalls being mistaken for the court reporter, and notes that women are in no way at a disadvantage to men.

“Being really good and really competent is the best way to be a feminist,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler advised students to learn from anyone in the world. It’s not necessarily about finding people you look up to; it can also be someone who is different from you.

“You can find mentors in a lot of different places,” she said. “Learn from watching people and what you don’t want to be like.”

She explained that anyone can accomplish anything when you have the will and potential to do so.

“I am just like you,” Ziegler said.

Before leaving, she gave everyone something to ponder.

“Reach for the moon,” Ziegler said. “You might land on a star.”

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