Appellate Judicial Efficiency

WisconsinSupremeCourtSealThe timing of released Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions is a popular topic this time of year among many members of the legal community.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court begins hearing cases in September every year and generally hears between six and ten cases each month through April.  In May, oral argument dates are set but not always used.  No oral arguments are held in June, and the term officially ends at the end of June.  This year, the court decided 57 cases.  Of those decisions, 23 cases (40 percent) were released after the term ended, i.e., on or after July 1.  In May and June, a total of 18 cases (32 percent) were released.  Does it really matter that over 70 percent of the court’s cases were released either after the term ended or in the last two months of the term?  I m not sure what the answer is to that question, but I do believe the Wisconsin Supreme Court should take measures to improve its appellate judicial efficiency. 

What I mean by appellate judicial efficiency is a timely disposal of cases, which would result in a steady flow of decisions released throughout the year rather than at the very end of or after the term.  Lower courts in Wisconsin are seemingly more efficient.  Pursuant to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals’ internal operating procedures, “the average time for rendering a decision should not exceed 40 days, and the maximum time for any case, except one of extraordinary complexity, should not exceed 70 days.”  Pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 70.36, trial courts must decide “each matter submitted for decision within 90 days of the date on which the matter is submitted to the judge in final form,” but this may be extended by 90 days. 

The timely disposal of cases — at all levels of the Wisconsin Judicial system — will result in an efficient judiciary, and it will benefit practicing lawyers, judges, and certainly the parties involved in the case.  Both judges and lawyers, who are required to take continuing education classes, will benefit from a steady flow of cases.  If most cases are released in a three-month period, it is difficult to study all cases in detail.    Those who teach these continuing education classes will likely also benefit from a steady flow rather than a gush of cases that need to be digested quickly and then taught.  The actual parties will also benefit from a timely disposal of cases.  At times, we may forget that actual people have a great amount invested in each one of these cases.  It is unfair to force these people to put their lives unnecessarily on hold while they await a decision.  It is especially troubling that an innocent person could sit in prison while he or she waits for a wrongful conviction to be overturned. 

In conclusion, appellate courts, including those of last resort, should attempt to become more judicially efficient.  While some delay is inevitable, avoidable delay should be eliminated.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court should work towards releasing a steady flow of cases throughout the term.  The United States Supreme Court, by comparison, has already achieved this gold standard.  Of the 74 cases the United States Supreme Court heard this past term, 21 cases were released in the month of June, 9 cases were released in May, 13 cases were released in April, 11 cases were released in March, 5 cases were released in February, 13 cases were released in January, and 2 cases were released in December.  As a result, while the Wisconsin Supreme Court released over 70 percent of its opinions in May, June, and July, the United States Supreme Court released only 40 percent during that same period.

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