The Wisconsin court system is facing major funding shortfalls that raise serious questions about the quality of justice being meted out in our courts. Currently, the state spends less than one cent out of every budget dollar for the entire court system. In addition, counties pick up some staff salaries and the cost of the courthouse at the trial-level courts. Counties do receive some court aids from the state, but these have been reduced in recent years because of budget cuts.
This bifurcated funding structure results in uneven support for our circuit courts. While some counties are building new courthouses, others have cut their court budgets so deeply that judges must get creative to cover basic office supplies.
In addition, salaries and support for lawyers and judges are among the lowest in the country. As Chief Justice Roggensack pointed out in her recent state of the judiciary address, Wisconsin ranks 41st in the country in judicial salaries and lowest among all the states in the Midwest. Just 15 years ago, Wisconsin ranked 21st. Today, Minnesota, to which Wisconsin is often compared, ranks 24th.
“The people of Wisconsin will benefit if we are able to attract and to retain highly skilled and knowledgeable judges,” the Chief Justice stated, because “judges who have had significant legal experience can address the complicated tasks before them because their legal knowledge, accumulated over many years, aids them in focusing their analyses.” That is lost when judges leave the bench for financial reasons or experienced lawyers cannot serve as judges for the same reason.
And, the private-bar reimbursement rate for attorneys taking public defender cases is among the lowest in the nation. When the rate was originally set at $35 per hour in the 1970s, it was because that was the average hourly billing rate for lawyers in Wisconsin. The State Bar fought hard to get it raised to $50 in the early 1990s, only to have the legislature reduce it a few years later to the current $40. Adjusted for inflation, that $35 today would be $130, which is still below the average hourly billing rate for Wisconsin attorneys. This issue remains a top priority for the State Bar.
The lack of pay progression for assistant district attorneys and state public defenders has the same impact on their ranks as the low salaries for judges. Experienced attorneys leave. That means the less experienced attorneys have little or no guidance or mentors in developing their charging decisions or defense strategies. Though pay progression language was retained in the last state budget, it was not funded. Add to this the need for more than 100 more ADAs and, as one district attorney said, “I know we’re making mistakes, and I know the defense attorneys are not catching them.”
And there is more. Courthouse security is spotty from one county to the next. Part-time clerks means judges can only be reached part of the day. Poorly maintained courthouses tell the public that what happens there is unimportant. Eventually, respect for the system founders.
In the field of historic preservation there is a term used to describe behaviors whereby a property owner intentionally allows a historic property to deteriorate beyond the point of repair. The purpose of this “demolition by neglect” is to give the owner the argument that the building is unable to be restored and must be torn down.
The question then is this: are the powers that be simply unaware of the harm they are causing to our court system and the consequences that are likely to occur because of this, or is this demolition by neglect?