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  • Wisconsin Lawyer
    January 01, 2016

    Your State Bar
    Of Old Adages and Pennies

    Here’s a low-cost, high-impact New Year’s resolution: learn about Wisconsin’s underfunded-courts problem and educate elected representatives and the public about the problem and how to fix it.

    George C. Brown

    Many old adages talk of pennies. Pennies from heaven. A penny saved is a penny earned. A penny for your thoughts.

    The last one applies here, as this issue of Wisconsin Lawyer highlights a recent survey of lawyers and judges about court funding in Wisconsin, conducted by St. Norbert College’s Strategic Research Institute, for the State Bar of Wisconsin. Most lawyers, and certainly most judges, know the Wisconsin court system is underfunded. This study shows that court underfunding has resulted in significant concerns about safety, fairness of court proceedings, and unnecessary and hidden expenses to the public.

    George C. BrownGeorge C. Brown is the executive director for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    Lack of security, because of an inadequate number of security officers, missing metal detectors, or something else, is one of the major issues identified by the survey, with 70 percent of respondents identifying it. It is especially a concern in smaller counties, “where a judge can sentence someone or rule against someone in a heated custody dispute and meet up with that person in the parking lot,” and in one of which a person who had threatened to kill the prosecutors “was able to sit directly outside the DA’s office for several hours with weapons … before he was frisked and the weapons removed.”

    Fairness of court proceedings is another area affected by underfunding. Fifty percent of survey respondents indicated that a criminal case was delayed due to lack of funding. “People are sometimes done serving their sentences by the time we resolve their appeal.” That might be okay if they are guilty, but what if they are not. In our technology-saturated world, the lack of even audiovisual equipment in courtrooms “leads to less than persuasive advocacy and unjust verdicts.”

    Funding gaps cause delays, which means that victims and defendants must take more and more time off work. Defendants might lose their jobs. Victims’ emotional distress is prolonged, and they must wait longer for compensation.

    Many of these concerns relate to areas of the court system that are funded by the counties. As a result of recent legislative actions, counties must now pick up 58 percent of the cost of county courts; in 2002, they picked up only 52 percent of the costs. And this at a time when the legislature has reduced the ability of counties to raise taxes to cover the difference.

    This study shows that court underfunding has resulted in significant concerns about safety, fairness of court proceedings, and unnecessary and hidden expenses to the public.

    A more complete article on this survey appears elsewhere in this magazine. Take time to read it. Every lawyer, as an officer of the court, plays a role in court funding. You should be aware of the study’s findings and discuss them with your colleagues and at the local bar association. We need to hear from you about what is happening in your area.

    And go beyond that. Talk with your legislator and your county board member. Help them understand the need that exists, the effect of the lack of funding on your community and their constituents, and the short-sightedness of underfunding the court system. The State Bar’s public affairs team can help you.

    So, please contact State Bar Public Relations Coordinator Katie Stenz at with more information about the challenges presented to your local courts and for help in working with local officials on improving funding for our courts.

    And while a penny for your thoughts applies to the survey, the survey results suggest that those making funding decisions have been penny wise and pound foolish.

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