Nov. 10, 2020 – In the 2020 State of the Judiciary address last week, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack highlighted how Wisconsin courts have “overcome the challenges presented by COVID-19” to serve the people.
The annual address, which kicks off the new term and the Wisconsin Judicial Conference, said the courts “have shown courage, again and again.”
Chief Justice Roggensack highlighted the court system’s response to COVID-19 since March – under the leadership of Wisconsin State Courts Director Randy Koschnick – from suspending most in-person proceedings and quickly moving to Zoom hearings, to convening a COVID-19 task force to provide guidance on how circuit courts could reopen safely despite challenges.
“Luckily, we have judges and staff who have a lot of personal courage and dedication to their service of the public,” the chief justice said. “We also have very creative judges.”
She noted Marinette County, which created a specific COVID-19 jury room, with the help and support of the county. It allows proper social distancing in the courtroom. Judge James Morrison also secured use of a local movie theatre for jury selection.
The chief justice also noted Judge John Anderson in Bayfield County, who conducted the state’s first post-COVID jury trial and used the local high school gym for jury selection.
“Wisconsin has conducted 258 in-person jury trials in cases ranging from criminal charges, to mental commitments, to CHIPs and TPRs and to personal injury claims since the COVID-19 challenge began,” Chief Justice Roggensack said.
“That is an extraordinary record. In addition to those trials, Wisconsin courts have conducted Zoom hearings on a daily basis for many types of legal issues and claims. We have been ‘open for business.’”
E-filing in the Court of Appeals
The chief justice noted that e-filing is moving into the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, with all districts accepting voluntary e-filing for all case types.
“Since eFiling began in the appellate courts, more than 320 cases and more than 1100 documents have been filed electronically,” she said.
Wisconsin commercial docket pilot project has been expanded, the chief justice noted, and is now ongoing in Dane and Waukesha counties, as well as the Second Judicial District (Walworth, Racine, and Kenosha counties) and the Eighth Judicial District (Brown, Door, Kewaunee, Marinette, Outagamie, and Waupaca counties).
“It has been very beneficial for business-related parties who proceeded in Wisconsin's commercial dockets,” Chief Justice Roggensack said.
“The judges who handle these cases have business experience and an appreciation of the need for prompt intervention, early resolution and the large community impact that commercial disputes can have.”
The Children Court Improvement Project continues to move forward to help children and families who need judicial assistance, the chief justice said. A pilot program, the Judicial Engagement Team (JET) that started with three counties has now grown to 9 counties.
“The Children Court Improvement Project also has provided webinars for those involved with child welfare issues,” she said.
“For example, webinars on the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act (WICWA), Child Safety Decision-Making, and Minor Guardianship Legislation have been provided.”
Chief Justice Roggensack said the state’s 98 treatment courts “have done an exceptional job of continuing to provide excellent support, programming and accountability during times of uncertainty and isolation.”
“Although COVID-19 has challenged judges to find new ways to connect with participants, Wisconsin is blessed with creative judges,” she said.
The chief justice noted Barron County Circuit Judge J.M. Bitney, who has incorporated music as way to connect with treatment court participants in their recoveries.
More Creativity During COVID-19
The chief justice highlighted an adoption proceeding conducted via Zoom by Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Jason Rossell.
“The immediate family was in the courtroom, as one would expect,” the chief justice said. “However, 65 additional friends and family attended the adoption on zoom, with one person attending in Kenya, Africa. It was a very joyful event for all.”
In closing, Chief Justice Roggensack said Wisconsin courts have prevailed over COVID “through the courage of the women and men who serve in those courts. She noted a Los Angeles Times op-ed that lauded Wisconsin efforts, compared to California.
Read the full 2020 State of the Judiciary Address.