April 16, 2015 – The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance has voted to keep the Wisconsin Judicial Council intact, despite Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate the Judicial Council and its staff in order to “streamline court operations.”
In the proposed 2015-17 biennial state budget bill, Gov. Walker proposed to discontinue and defund the independent Judicial Council, a 21-member panel with one attorney staff position that studies and monitors the rules of pleading, practice, and procedure and recommends rule and legislative measures to improve the administration of justice.
The Legislature in 1951 created the Judicial Council, which includes various stakeholders from the legal community, including one justice, five judges, two legislators, two citizens, and representatives from the two law schools, the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the State Public Defender Office, and State Bar of Wisconsin.
The governor indicated that eliminating the Judicial Council would not prevent the Wisconsin Supreme Court from creating its own advisory council with its own budget.
But a Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper said it wasn’t clear the supreme court would have the budgetary resources to create and support the work of its own Judicial Council.
In any event, yesterday the Legislature’s 16-member Joint Committee on Finance, controlled by Republicans, voted 15-1 to retain the council’s membership, power, and duties by statute, but the supreme court must now fully fund the council’s operations, which amounts to $133,400 annually. The court’s budget currently funds half.
Unlike the previous budget – where the court system was hit with an $11.8 million lapse – the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted to maintain the court’s budget with a small increase. The committee also approved Gov. Walker’s proposal to provide the court with a block grant of funding to increase the court’s budget autonomy.
The court did request, and the committee agreed, to delay the implementation of the block grant to the second year of the biennium so that the court could plan and administer the new program. The block grant will combine appropriations from the circuit court support payments, guardian ad litem costs, and court interpreter fees.
The original proposal included court reporters in the grant, but the committee removed this provision as it might actually create less flexibility due to the appropriation change.
Judicial Commission and Problem-solving Court Coordinator
The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee also voted 16-0 to reject Gov. Walker’s proposal to eliminate the Wisconsin Judicial Commission as a separately budgeted agency and transfer funding and position authority to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The nine-member Judicial Commission, originally created in 1971, is an independent agency that investigates and prosecutes misconduct under Wisconsin’s Code of Judicial Conduct. Members include court appointed judges, lawyers, and governor appointees.
The Joint Finance Committee also voted 15-1 to create a full-time statewide coordinator position for the state’s problem solving courts, which will be funded by court resources.
Governor Signs Bills
Last week, Gov. Scott Walker signed several bills that codify or clarify the holdings and judicial interpretations in various Wisconsin court cases. Another bill expands the jurisdiction of courts to act in domestic abuse, child abuse, and harassment cases.
2015 Wisconsin Act 4 (relating to jurisdiction in matters relating to domestic abuse restraining orders and injunctions, child and at-risk adult abuse restraining orders and injunctions, and harassment restraining orders and injunctions): Creates Wis. Stat section 801.05(11m), which says courts have personal jurisdiction over persons whose acts or threats occur outside the state if the petitioner resides in Wisconsin.
2015 Wisconsin Act 11 (relating to laying out, altering, or discontinuing a town line highway): Clarifies that when an application to locate, alter, or discontinue a highway that crosses the borders of multiple municipalities, the municipalities’ governing bodies must act together but vote separately on any applications or resolutions. Act 11 is an apparent codification of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s judicial interpretation of Wis. Stat. section 82.21(2) in its 2011 ruling in Dawson v. Town of Jackson.
2015 Wisconsin Act 12 (relating to appealing a municipal court matter after review by a circuit court): Amends Wis. Stat. section 808.03 to clarify that final judgments and orders in traffic cases may be appealed as a matter of right after a docketed prosecution in circuit court or “following a decision in a municipal court, appealed to circuit court.”
2015 Wisconsin Act 14 (relating to intimidating a witness): Clarifies language in Wis. Stat. section 940.44 to ensure that a person is guilty of intimidating a witness if he or she attempts to prevent or dissuade a victim from “causing a complaint, indictment, or information to be sought,” regardless of whether the victim assists in the prosecution.