In her eight years on the Howard County District Court bench, Diane G.

Schulte built a solid reputation for herself as a judge who threw the book at drunken drivers.

She routinely jailed repeat offenders. She also pushed rehabilitation for those with drinking problems -- a practice now followed by most county judges.

"Schulte was a good judge -- she probably shocked more people than anyone else," said Robert G. Voss, a District Court prosecutor. "She would send them to jail for two years, then bring them back after 30 days and suspend the rest (of the sentence)."

Schulte's reputation as a "hanging judge" for drunken drivers is in stark contrast with her reputation today -- as a crack defense attorney for those charged with drunken driving.

More than two years after she left the bench and started a private practice, Schulte now regularly defends drunken drivers, who she estimated earlier this year made up about 75 percent of her clientele. It is a metamorphosis that at least one frustrated MADD activist described as "a mockery of the judicial system."

"This does not send out a very good message," said Wayne Kruhm, a founding member of the Howard County MADD chapter and a regular monitor of DWI cases in county courtrooms.

Kruhm and others -- including a number of county police officers -- say they fear Schulte's transition from drunken-driving punisher to drunken-driving defender sends a mixed message in a community where she helped pioneer the notion that drunken drivers should get tough penalties.

"A lot of people are concerned about it. I've heard a lot of complaints," said Michael A. Weal, the top prosecutor at Howard County District Court. But Weal said he does not fault Schulte for the change.

"She's an attorney now and has a living to make," he said. "She has the right to change hats as much as anyone else does."

Schulte offered a pragmatic explanation for the turnaround.

"I'm a lawyer first. My role is entirely different now," she said. "The ultimate goal is to give my clients good representation. They are entitled to that -- even drunk drivers."

And if anyone knows what constitutes a good defense for a drunken driver, it is Schulte, who says she'd seen almost every trick in the book during her eight years on the bench.

"She certainly knows all the angles. She knows the system and the shortcuts to take," said Weal. "But I mean that in the best way . . . . She gets treatment for her clients, and then tries to work out the best deal for them (in court) she can."

Weal said when his prosecutors go up against Schulte in court on a DWI case, "they know to dot every 'I' and cross every 'T,' or she'll call them on it."

Schulte says her goal is to develop a criminal law practice, where she would be defending clients for all kinds of transgressions. For now, however, most of the criminal cases she has been getting have been DWIs, she said.

Schulte is quick to point out that her philosophy about drunken driving has not changed. Even on the bench, she focused on rehabilitation and treatment, which is what she believes is required to change the behavior of drunken drivers.

"As a tough judge, I gave them the choice -- go to jail or deal with the problem," she said. "Many opted for treatment. I forced the confrontation."

As a defense lawyer, she says her emphasis is still the same, and she guides many of her clients to the help they need.

"You've got to clear the drink out of the driver," she says. "That's the way to go. . . . The only value of punitive measures with alcoholics is to get their attention."

A former colleague on the bench, Judge James Vaughan, backs up that assessment.

"Of course she tries to do what's best for her client," said Vaughan.

"But if the person has a drinking problem, she is the first to admit that he ought to get into treatment."

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