What can you expect from the courts in Milwaukee County?
A system that does everything well, from the ultimate decisions down to the way people are received at the security points at the entrances to buildings.
A system that is well run and staffed by well-trained people in every role.
A system where people feel safe in the courthouse and people, especially crime victims, are treated with respect.
A system that handles cases of all kinds in a fair way, providing a fair forum without politics .
A system that does all it can to be sure civil cases as well as criminal cases, small claims as well as high-profile major crimes, are handled effectively, professionally, and as promptly as possible.
Those are among the goals set out Wednesday by Judge Maxine White, who recently became chief judge of the first judicial district of Wisconsin (which is to say, Milwaukee County). She spoke at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School.
White, L’85, has been a circuit judge since 1992 and has had experience in almost all the kinds of cases handled by the 47 circuit courts in the district. She set forth her visions with firmness and passion for what she wants to see as, in effect, the CEO of the state largest judicial district (albeit a CEO with limited control and little budgetary power).
She said she realized the court system doesn’t always meet the goals she set forth and doesn’t always offer people such as jurors what they deserve. But that doesn’t mean it should strive to succeed in offering the best it can.
White also was emphatic about what people shouldn’t expect from the courts. Asked by an audience member what judges can do to reduce crime, she said judges “have to stay in their lane.” They are not police officers, prosecutors, or social service workers. “We are not community activists. We are not politicians,” she said. And “we can’t act until they (people and disputes) come to us.”
That said, she said, “we are marrying our lane with other lanes where it’s appropriate.” She mentioned involvement in efforts to bring more resources to Milwaukee for programs aiming to prevent disputes from arising.
White expressed concern about how many people are being imprisoned, but locally and nationally.
“My goodness, we are locking up America,” she said. She said she recently attended a national conference at which representatives from all 50 states were asking the same questions about who should be locked up.
“We lock people up, and we have the same results,” she said about crime rates. “Are we missing the mark by not locking up the right people?”
She referred to “evidence-based decision making” efforts underway in Milwaukee County as ways to try to give judges more tools for deciding who to lock up and for how long. But, she said, being a good judge requires being brave, tough, learned, and willing to make judgment calls that have major impacts on many people.
If you want cases to be decided by feeding data into a machine and pulling a lever, “then you don’t need us,” she said.
And she said she has a response to jurors and others who want to see cases handled in more speedy fashions. “This is not Oprah,” she said she tells them. Court cases are not entertainment. Sometimes they have to move slowly and they involve technical matters.
Asked by an audience member what how long it takes to handle some civil proceedings in court, White said those cases are important and need to be handled as well and as promptly as they can be. She said of the 47 circuit courts in Milwaukee County, 21 deal with criminal matters. She said there had been proposals to increase the number of criminal courts, but she thought that would have a negative impact on noncriminal matters.
“Twenty-one out of 47 is enough criminal courts,” White said. She said she had asked several judges currently in criminal courts to increase their caseloads and they had agreed.
White said her job as chief judge includes making sure that the hundreds of people who come to the courts each day are given clear directions on where they are supposed to go and what will happen, that they feel as comfortable and safe as is feasible, and, especially if they are jurors or victims, they have as good an experience as is possible.
“It might sound like I’m running a Walmart, and some days, it feels like it,” she said.
But however it feels at times, she described the justice system, and especially the principle of having cases decided by citizen jurors, as one of the most powerful and unique aspects of American justice.
Video of the session with Judge White may be viewed by clicking here.