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    Supreme Court Digest

    Prof. Daniel D. Blinka & Prof. Thomas J. Hammer

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    In this column, Prof. Daniel Blinka and Prof. Thomas Hammer summarize all decisions of the Wisconsin Supreme Court (except those involving lawyer or judicial discipline).

    Criminal Procedure

    Jury Trials – Effect of Jury Instruction That Erroneously Adds an “Element” to the Definition of the Charged Offense

    State v. Beamon, 2013 WI 47 (filed 29 May 2013)

    Holding: When the circuit court erroneously adds an “element” to the definition of the charged crime, the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction is assessed as against the crime’s actual elements.

    Daniel D. Blinkaedu daniel.blinka marquette Prof. Daniel D. Blinka, U.W. 1978, is a professor of law at Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee.

    Thomas J. Hammeredu thomas.hammer marquette Prof. Thomas J. Hammer, Marquette 1975, is a law professor and Director of Clinical Education at Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee.

    Among the charges in the information filed in this case was a count of fleeing a traffic officer in violation of Wis. Stat. section 346.04(3). To explain the substance of this crime, the circuit court used a jury instruction that erroneously included an “element” not required by the statute. On the appeal of his conviction, the defendant, Beamon, claimed that the sufficiency of the evidence must be evaluated as against the jury instruction actually given at trial, even though the instruction erroneously added a requirement to the statutory definition of the crime. He further argued that there was no proof to support the erroneously added “element.” In a published decision, the court of appeals affirmed the conviction. See 2011 WI App 131.

    In a majority decision authored by Justice Roggensack, the supreme court affirmed the court of appeals. The majority concluded that “jury instructions that add requirements to what the statute sets out as necessary to prove the commission of a crime are erroneous; and therefore, we examine the sufficiency of the evidence in this case by comparison to what the statute requires and not by comparison to an additional requirement in the jury instructions actually given. Furthermore, jury instruction errors are subject to harmless error analysis, which we apply here. A harmless error analysis asks whether, based on the totality of the circumstances, it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury, properly instructed, would have found the defendant guilty” (¶ 50).

    Under the totality of circumstances in this case, “it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt the jury would have found Beamon guilty of fleeing or attempting to elude an officer absent the erroneous jury instruction. The evidence at trial unquestionably supported the jury’s verdict that Beamon violated the fleeing or eluding statute. Accordingly, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence to convict Beamon” (¶ 51).

    Justice Bradley filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Chief Justice Abrahamson. Justice Prosser did not participate in this case. 

    Family Law

    Divorce – Pensions – Qualified Domestic Relations Orders – Statute of Repose

    Johnson v. Masters, 2013 WI 43 (filed 17 May 2013)

    Holding: When a statute precludes a provision in a judgment, the statute of repose cannot begin to run as to that provision until the legislature changes the law such that the provision can be carried out.

    This case was before the supreme court on certification from the court of appeals. It concerns a dispute over the enforceability of a pension award contained in a divorce judgment. The specific legal question was whether the circuit court erred when it denied Patricia Johnson’s motion for entry of a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) on grounds that the motion was barred by Wis. Stat. section 893.40, a statute of repose, which states that “action upon a judgment or decree … shall be commenced within 20 years after the judgment or decree is entered or be barred.”

    Johnson filed a motion on Sept. 13, 2010, seeking to compel her ex-husband, Michael Masters, to provide pension information so that the necessary QDRO could be prepared and his Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) pension could be divided in accordance with the divorce judgment. The judgment had been filed more than 20 years before, on July 20, 1989. With regard to the pension benefits, the judgment had awarded Johnson one-half of the value accrued during the marriage and stated that a QDRO “shall be submitted to secure these rights.”

    However, although the judgment requiring the filing of a QDRO was filed in 1989, it was not until 1998 that the WRS was authorized by statute to accept a QDRO related to divorces that became effective between 1982 and 1990.

    In a majority decision authored by Justice Crooks, the supreme court held that Johnson’s motion was not barred by operation of the statute of repose. “The judgment required the filing of a QDRO with the WRS, and it was not until 1998 that legislation authorized [the] WRS to accept such orders for marriages such as this one that were terminated in 1989. It would be absurd and unreasonable to construe the statute of repose in such a way that it would begin to run at the time of a judgment with regard to a provision that assigned Masters’ interest contrary to existing law, which was and continued for the next nine years to be that WRS pension interests were not assignable. Construing the statute [of repose] as starting to run as to that provision at the point when the provision was no longer contrary to law is a way to retain its limiting function ‘in a manner that serves its purpose.’ Under the circumstances present in this case where a statute precludes a provision in a judgment, the statute of repose cannot begin to run as to that provision until the legislature changes the law such that the provision can be carried out. In this case, that occurred on May 2, 1998, and the statute of repose will bar actions on that provision after May 1, 2018” (¶ 26).

    Chief Justice Abrahamson filed a concurring opinion. Justice Bradley filed a concurring opinion that was joined by the Chief Justice. Justice Ziegler filed a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Roggensack and Justice Gableman. All concurring justices joined the majority opinion. Justice Prosser filed a dissent.