Pondering the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Criminal Docket

Last week, I was delighted to participate in the Conference on the Wisconsin Supreme Court organized by Rick Esenberg.  The panel I moderated reviewed some of the court’s most significant criminal cases last term.  But “most significant” is a relative term, and I don’t think any of the panelists found the court’s recent criminal cases to offer anything especially bold or innovative.  The court seems to be operating more in an error-correction mode than a law-declaration mode.  Recent decisions generally do not announce new rules of law, but operate within established legal frameworks and decide cases based on the particularities of the facts presented.  (Indeed, an exception to this trend, State v. Ferguson, 767 N.W.2d 187, drew a sharp rebuke from Justice Bradley, who characterized the majority decision as “an unbridled exercise of power.”)  Notably absent is the “new federalism” exhibited in some earlier terms, in which the court interprets state constitutional rights in ways that are more protective than the analogous federal rights.

Fans of judicial minimalism should be happy with the court’s recent criminal decisions.  So should fans of judicial collegiality: the court’s minimalist holdings produce few dissenting votes and (Bradley’s shot notwithstanding) a generally respectful tone in the few dissenting opinions.  I wonder, though, if all of this minimalism and case-specific analysis provides sufficient clarity in the law for the police officers, lawyers, and trial-court judges working in the trenches of the criminal-justice system.  Though much in vogue now, minimalism has its vices, too.

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