Vol. 80, No. 8, August 2007
One of the first jobs for the chief judge the Monday morning I visited was to see if the courtroom had been cleaned as promised the previous Friday. That morning, a toilet had overflowed and effluent had seeped into the courtroom. The maintenance staff had vacuumed up the mess, but by Friday afternoon the odor was so bad that court had to be adjourned. Maintenance promised to clean the carpet on the weekend, but the judge needed to make sure the overworked and overwhelmed crew had gotten to it.
Later Monday morning, a trial court judge was explaining to me his reasoning behind the sentence he had just handed down. "It was a first offense for a middle-aged guy with an addiction. If I send him to prison, he probably loses the good paying job he's had for the last five years. He needs to know he screwed up and he needs treatment, but if he loses his job over this, he'll be on the street selling. That's counterproductive."
We were sitting in the trial judge's chambers, in which is crammed a faded desk, a 1960s green "leatherette" sofa, a side chair dating from the Great Depression, and a bookcase. In the adjacent courtroom, prosecution and defense counsel sit one in front of the other and the judge sits nearly to the ceiling so there is room below for the clerk and court reporter. There are no windows; together the courtroom and chambers are called "the cave."
The cave is in the Public Safety Building that also houses the old jail shut down by the federal government because it was deemed no longer humane. So half the building - a building that study after study says should be torn down - stands half-unused. "It's a breeding ground for rats and cockroaches, especially since all the cutbacks in maintenance," said the chief judge.
Still later, the chief judge asked the daily question, "How many in the jail?" "Nine twenty-five" was the answer. "Good," said the judge, explaining that if the jail had more than 950 prisoners, the county taxpayers would be fined by the federal government. "Was it a light weekend?" "Light weekend."
Welcome to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, where the 47 judges and 22 court commissioners close 150,000 cases a year, including 48,000 small claims cases, 6,500 juvenile cases, and 6,900 felonies. Somehow, each day, the judges and commissioners, and the rest of the 300 employees, show respect for the litigants, the defendants, the lawyers, and each other. Somehow, in spite of the challenges they face, they continue to remain focused on justice.
Milwaukee's situation may be extreme, but it is not unique. It is only one example of the problems facing everyone who works in or uses the circuit courts in Wisconsin. Judges and lawyers know that delivering justice and upholding the rule of law is more than good public policy; it is a constitutional mandate and our cherished heritage. Let us hope policymakers at all levels of government will one day show similar respect to our justice system by providing adequate funding as they shape future budgets.