A Rebellion of Giants: Dixon, Ryan, and Taming the Railroads in the Gilded Age

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Chief Justice Luther S. Dixon

Chief Justice
Luther S. Dixon

This is the fifth in a series of Schoone Fellowship Field Notes.

Eastern jurists such as John Marshall, James Kent, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Benjamin Cardozo have received the lion’s share of attention from law professors and historians over the years. Two fellow giants from the Midwest, Michigan’s Thomas Cooley and Iowa’s John Dillon, have been relegated to comparative obscurity.

Cooley and Dillon played a central role in shaping the contours of modern American constitutional law. They forged their philosophies in the heat of two critical judicial debates over the role of railroads in American society. Two Wisconsin justices, Luther Dixon and Edward Ryan, were also leaders in those debates, and their contributions to American constitutional law deserve to be better known. Read more »

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Decline in Wisconsin Prison Population Results From Fewer Drug Offenders Behind Bars

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As I discussed in this post, Wisconsin has achieved one of the nation’s higher rates of reduction in imprisonment over the past decade. To be sure, New York, California, and a few other states have far outpaced Wisconsin in this regard, and Wisconsin’s prison population remains nearly ten times larger than it was in the early 1970s. Still, we may appreciate some overall net progress in the Badger State’s numbers since the mid-2000s. As indicated in the chart after the jump, reduced imprisonment of drug offenders has played a central role in driving this trend.   Read more »

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New Article on Good Conduct Time

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Legal Scholarship, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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I have a new article in the Wisconsin Lawyer about good conduct time, a program that permits prisoners to earn accelerated release based on how well they do behind bars.  Most states offer GCT to their prison inmates, but Wisconsin does not.  (Inmates in local jail facilities here may earn GCT, but not the 20,000+ longer-term inmates in state prisons.)  In the new article, I argue that Wisconsin policymakers should consider adopting a GCT program for prisoners as part of their ongoing efforts to reduce the size of the state prison population, which remains near historic highs.  For readers interested in more on this topic, I’ve created a page on my personal blog that collects my writings on GCT.

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Wisconsin: The Final Firework in the Antislavery Legal Movement

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Lemuel Shaw

Mass. Chief Justice
Lemuel Shaw

This is the fourth in a series of Schoone Fellowship Field Notes.

Putting Wisconsin’s antislavery heritage in perspective. Wisconsin takes great pride in its antislavery heritage, particularly the Northwest Ordinance (1787), which ensured that Wisconsin would be a free state, and the Booth Cases (1854, 1859), in which Wisconsin stood alone in defying the federal government’s attempt to turn northerners into slavecatchers. This pride is justified but needs perspective. When Wisconsin arrived on the American stage as a new state (1848), American slavery was two centuries old and the legal reaction against slavery had been underway for 70 years. The Booth Cases were important, but they were merely the final fireworks in the drama of American law and slavery. Read more »

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Early Wisconsin Law: A New York State of Mind

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Chancellor James Kent

Chancellor James Kent

This is the third in a series of Schoone Fellowship Field Notes.

Legal cross-currents among states. Measuring the legal influence states have on each other is an intriguing but difficult task. Some scholars have approached the task by measuring the number of times a state’s supreme court decisions are cited in other states. Typically they have used these numbers to rank each state and have left it there. Little consideration has been given to regional variations in influence or changes in influence over time, or to the fact that judges rely on legal treatises as well as other courts’ decisions.

I have gone further, measuring case and treatise citations at 20-year intervals from 1800 to 1860. The book I am writing as part of the Schoone Fellowship will present these results in full. New York, as expected, was the most influential state but, surprisingly, American courts also relied heavily on English cases heavily until the 1840s. The numbers present a striking picture of America’s increasing reliance on its own law: Read more »

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Lighting Out for the Territories

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Judge James Doty

Judge James Doty

This is the second in a series of Schoone Fellowship Field Notes.

Territorial judges: an overlooked force in American law. As Willard Hurst observed, during the past 150 years lawyers have been implementers rather than creators of law. We whose days are spent staring at a screen and poring over paperwork sometimes wish we could take a way-back machine to the days of legal creationism, if only for a little while. Yet an important group of creators—judges appointed from Washington, starting in the 1780s, to establish the law in America’s far-flung, largely unsettled new territories—are nearly forgotten today. Territorial judges were often, in the words of the French observer Achille Murat, “the refuse of other tribunals” or seekers after sinecures, and if they are remembered at all it is as much for their escapades as for their jurisprudence. But some of the territorial judges, including Wisconsin’s James Doty, stand out in American political and legal history, and the vital contributions they made to institutionalizing American law are often overlooked. The book being written under the Schoone Fellowship’s auspices will attempt to remedy that. Read more »

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Daubert Has “Teeth” (and a Pulse)

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The first published case on Wisconsin’s (relatively) new rule on expert opinion testimony has emerged at long last. In 2011 the legislature replaced Wisconsin’s decade’s-old approach with the federal “Daubert rule,” a rule rejected by state appellate courts on several occasions. The old rule left disagreements among experts mostly to the trier of fact, provided the witnesses had suitable specialized knowledge that could assist in fact finding. The current Daubert rule unctuously anoints trial judges as “gatekeepers” responsible for ensuring that only “reliable” expert opinions are put before juries. Many critics, me included, thought the old rule served the same purpose quite well. In State v. Giese, 2014 WI App 92, the court of appeals wisely signals that the new rule is mostly compatible with the older approach.  Read more »

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Attorney General Candidates Raise Profile of Low-Key Race in Eckstein Hall Debate

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Near the end of an hour-long debate Sunday between the two candidates for Wisconsin attorney general, moderator Mike Gousha asked if either wanted to bring up something that hasn’t gotten enough attention during the campaign.

Democrat Susan Happ, the district attorney of Jefferson County, answered first and talked about consumer protection.
Republican Brad Schimel, district attorney of Waukesha County, answered that the entire race hadn’t gotten enough attention. It’s an important race, he said, and there should be more awareness of it.

Indeed, the race has not sparked widespread public attention. A Marquette Law School Poll released on Oct 1 found that about four out of five of those polled did not have an opinion of either Schimel or Happ. Overall, the race was close, according to the poll, but people expressed an opinion on who they would vote for only in response to a question that identified each candidate by party.

With a little over three weeks to go until the Nov. 4 election, the debate Sunday, in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall, may have helped give awareness of the race a boost. The debate, co-sponsored by Marquette Law School and WISN-TV, was broadcast live across Wisconsin. The candidates are scheduled to take part in two more debates. Read more »

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Good Time in Wisconsin: Why and How

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In a couple of recent posts (here and here), I have discussed the possibility of reinstituting “good time” in Wisconsin. I have developed the argument for good time at much greater depth in a new article that is now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Wisconsin is one of about twenty states not offering good conduct time (GCT) to prisoners. In most states, prisoners are able to earn GCT credits toward accelerated release through good behavior. Wisconsin itself had GCT for more than a century, but eliminated it as part of a set of reforms in the 1980s and 1990s that left the state with what may be the nation’s most inflexible system for the release of prisoners. Although some of these reforms helpfully brought greater certainty to punishment, they went too far in eliminating nearly all meaningful recognition and encouragement of good behavior and rehabilitative progress. This article explains why and how Wisconsin should reinstitute GCT, drawing on social scientific research on the effects of GCT, public opinion surveys in Wisconsin and across the United States regarding sentencing policy, and an analysis of the GCT laws in place in other jurisdictions. Although the article focuses particularly on Wisconsin’s circumstances, the basic argument for GCT is more generally applicable, and much of the analysis should be of interest to policymakers in other states, too.

Entitled “Good Conduct Time for Prisoners: Why (and How) Wisconsin Should Provide Credits Toward Early Release,” the article is forthcoming in the Marquette Law Review.

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“Good Time” in Washington: A Model for Wisconsin?

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In an earlier post, I argued that Wisconsin should consider reinstituting “good time” for prisoners, that is, credits toward accelerated release that can be earned based on good behavior.  An established program that Wisconsin might emulate is Washington’s.

Washington has long been regarded as a national leader in criminal justice.  Indeed, Wisconsin has previously borrowed from other Washington innovations, such as its “three strikes and you are out” law and its civil commitment program for sexually violent offenders.  Washington’s good-time law takes a balanced, moderate approach.  It is neither among the most generous nor the most stringent in the nation.

Notably, Washington’s recidivism rate has been consistently lower than both the national average and Wisconsin’s.  Although many factors contribute to a state’s recidivism rate, some research suggests that the incentives established by a well-designed good-time program may help to reduce repeat offending.

With the rules set forth here, the Washington program works like this:   Read more »

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Why No “Good Time” in Wisconsin?

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Unlike most other states, Wisconsin does not recognize prisoners’ good behavior with credits toward accelerated release.  Wisconsin had such a “good time” program for well over a century, but eliminated it as part of the policy changes in the 1980s and 1990s that collectively left the state unusually — perhaps even uniquely — inflexible in its terms of imprisonment.  I’ve been researching the history of good time in Wisconsin in connection with a forthcoming law review article.

Wisconsin adopted its first good time law in 1860, which placed it among the first states to embrace this new device for improving prison discipline.  Twenty years later, in 1880, the Legislature expanded good time and restructured the program in the form it would retain for about a century.  In the first year of imprisonment, an inmate could earn one month of credit for good behavior; in the second, two months; in the third, three; and so forth.  Credits maxed out at six months per year.   A model prisoner with a ten-year term, for instance, might earn enough credits to knock off nearly three years from the time served.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, good time has had a distinct history, structure, and purpose from parole.   Read more »

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Two-Thirds of Wisconsinites Support More Flexibility for Prisoner Releases

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In 1998, Wisconsin adopted what may have been the nation’s most rigid truth-in-sentencing law, eliminating parole across the board and declining to put into place any alternative system of back-end release flexibility, such as credits for good behavior in prison.  Subsequent reforms to this system have been either short-lived or very modest in scope.  However, new results from the Marquette Law School Poll confirm and strengthen findings from other recent surveys that Wisconsin residents would actually welcome a more flexible system.

As I noted in an earlier post, the Law School Poll has asked Wisconsinites their views about criminal-justice policies in each of the past three summers.  Although the Poll has revealed significant support for truth in sentencing, it has also revealed comparable or even greater support for enhanced flexibility.

In 2012, Poll results included the following:  

  • 85% of respondents agreed that “criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”
  • 67% agreed that “Wisconsin should recognize prisoners’ rehabilitative accomplishments by awarding credits toward early release.”
  • 55% agreed that “once a prisoner has served at least half of his term, he should be released from prison and given a less costly form of punishment if he can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to society.”

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