On Wednesday night, October 11th, the non-partisan organization Common Cause in Wisconsin is holding a town hall meeting/public hearing entitled “Access to Justice.” Co-sponsors of the event include the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, the League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County, and the American Association of University Women of Wisconsin. This free event is open to the public and will take place October 11 from 6:30PM to 8:00PM at Marquette Law School in the Appellate Courtroom (Main Level). Marquette University Law School is not a sponsor of the event.
The focus of the event will be the recusal rules that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has adopted for our state judiciary. Wisconsin’s current state recusal “non-standard” was written by the lobbyist organization Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce in 2010. The current rule essentially states that judges may decide for themselves whether to recuse themselves in a case involving a donor or special interest group who made campaign contributions to that judge.
This past April, the Wisconsin Supreme Court discussed a petition by 54 retired Wisconsin judges to establish reasonable thresholds for recusal of trial and appellate judges when they receive campaign contributions from a defendant or plaintiff – or if they benefited from spending by an “outside” special interest group involved in a case before their court. The State Supreme Court voted 5 to 2 to reject this petition, and the Court did so without any input from the public.
The purpose of Wednesday night’s event is to educate persons in attendance on the issue of judicial recusal rules and to seek public input on possible reforms. I will be one speaker at this event, along with former State Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, former Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Michael Skwierawski, and Jay Heck from Common Cause.
Again, this event is free and open to the public. I hope to see you there.
This is the second part of a three part series on Women in Wisconsin Law.
Although women were admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in 1879, it would be over one hundred years until the state’s first elected female county judge. In 1970, Olga Bennett, a native of Vernon County, was the first woman elected and sworn in as a county judge in Wisconsin.
Bennett was born on May 5, 1908, in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Education played an important role throughout Bennett’s life. In 1925 she graduated from Viroqua High School, and in 1928, she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Wisconsin. After taking time following her undergraduate studies to work at a local bank, she returned to her studies four years later. After spending a semester at the Madison Business School, Bennett enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1935, she graduated from law school and was admitted to the state bar.
Upon graduating, Bennett served as a law clerk for State Supreme Court Justice John D. Wickham for five years. Following this clerkship, she went into business with her father, who was also an attorney. Together they ran the Bennett and Bennett law firm. Before being elected to serve as a judge, Bennett held various positions in the legal community, including serving as the first female city attorney of Viroqua.
Although one might have expected that a larger county in the state, such as Madison or Milwaukee, would have been the first to elect a female county judge, it was small Vernon County with a population of only 28,000 that holds this title. In April 1969, Bennett ran and was elected to the bench in Vernon County (courthouse pictured above at left), defeating incumbent County Judge Larry Sieger who was appointed by the governor in 1968. In 1970, she took the oath of office and became the second woman to serve as a judge in Wisconsin. Continue reading “Women in Wisconsin Law: Olga Bennett”
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. Continue reading “Judge Maxine White: Aiming to Provide Well-Run, Fair Courts, not Oprah Episodes”
Justice N. Patrick Crooks was the epitome of a lawyer and judge who lived to serve. In his fifty-two-year legal career, he served as a captain in the office of the Judge Advocate General at the Pentagon and then as a lawyer in private practice in Green Bay, before becoming a Brown County circuit court judge and then justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In 1994 he was named Wisconsin Trial Judge of the Year by the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates. Justice Crooks served on the trial bench for nineteen years and on the Wisconsin Supreme Court from 1996 to his passing, in chambers, last week on September 21.
I was honored to work for Justice Crooks as his clerk during the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 1999-2000 term.
Justice Crooks approached each case with fresh eyes and an impartial mind. He reasoned through cases carefully and understood that he had a solemn role in deciding a case. Justice Crooks believed in the law and the justice system. Every case was fully analyzed and researched before oral argument. Opinions were to be written to guide lawyers, judges, and Wisconsin citizens. Justice Crooks was proud of his work on the trial bench and felt that his knowledge of the trial courtroom was important to his understanding of cases on appeal.
Continue reading “In Memory of Justice Patrick Crooks”
As of today, eFiling is now available in Milwaukee County for family and civil cases. John Barrett, the Milwaukee County Clerk of Circuit Court, referred in this press release to eFiling’s “fast, secure filing” and “ease of use and cost efficiency”, among other benefits. The Wisconsin Court System website also includes a demonstration of the process and tutorial.
A person wishing to use eFiling must register with the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP). The eFiling website may be used at any time, any day to file or access a document.
We live in interesting times. A segment of the general public is quick to forgive the killing of two young men in Slinger, Wisconsin and Sanford, Florida as the unavoidable consequence of the exercise of a constitutional right. Yet at the same time, state court judges who have exercised their constitutional right of self-governance by signing a recall petition are being publicly called out by both special interest groups and the media, as if by signing the petition they have transgressed some moral boundary. These are interesting times, indeed.
The signing of a recall petition is a right guaranteed by Article XIII of the Wisconsin Constitution. It is a procedure whereby any voter can request that the continuation in office of an elected official in the State of Wisconsin should be put to the vote of the full electorate. If a sufficient number of voters sign the petition, a recall election is held. A recall can only succeed in removing the officeholder if both a sufficient number of recall signatures are filed and a majority of the electorate votes in favor of removal. The Recall is democratic self-governance in its purest form, and along with the Initiative and the Referendum it is one of the three structural vehicles by which Progressive Era voters sought to bypass the influence that special interests hold on elected bodies.
The Wisconsin GOP has filed an official complaint against Dane County Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan with the Judicial Commission on the grounds that the judge should have recused himself in a case challenging the constitutionality of the Wisconsin Voter ID law. Must judges who have signed a recall petition subsequently recuse themselves from sitting on any case in which the Governor, or Republican legislators, or the Republican Party of Wisconsin asserts that the signing of the petition evidences a bias against them? The answer is “no.” There is no explicit provision that prohibits judges from signing a recall petition or that mandates that they recuse themselves from any politically charged case if they have done so. Continue reading “Signing a Recall Petition Does Not Require Judicial Recusal”
Republican State Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center and Democratic State Sen. Timothy Cullen of Janesville did two things a few months ago that were quite remarkable in the light of the super-charged, partisan atmosphere in Madison (and elsewhere) this year.
For one, they had lunch together. And for another, they decided to spend a day in each other’s districts, trying to get a better grasp of the perspective of people who lived different lifestyles and had different views from the people in their own districts. Schultz represents a strongly rural state Senate district, while Cullen’s district, which includes Beloit, is more oriented toward cities and factories.
Schultz and Cullen agreed on quite a few things: The legislative process in Madison had become too divisive. Good policy requires the support of at least half the people of the state and not just people on one side. Both parties were guilty of pushing through momentous decisions without significant support from the other party – in the case of the Republicans in Wisconsin, it was the collective bargaining bill that triggered an uproar in Madison earlier this year, in the case of the Democrats in Washington, it was the health care bill passed in 2010.
The two decided they should work together on an idea that could change things. They settled on trying to reform the way state Supreme Court justices are selected so that process is less partisan and less subject to influence from special interests.
And they decided to go on the road around Wisconsin with what they labeled their common ground tour. Continue reading “Bipartisanship? Cooperation? Will These Ideas Fly?”
Judge Maryann Sumi issued the long anticipated opinion in Ozanne v. Fitzgerald yesterday, holding: 1) that the circuit courts have jurisdiction to hear cases alleging that a particular piece of legislation was not constitutionally enacted; 2) that the court’s jurisdiction includes challenges alleging noncompliance with Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law; and that 3) the failure of the March 9, 2011 Joint Committee of Conference Meeting to comply with the Open Meetings Law rendered the legislative action taken at that meeting — 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 — void.
Judge Sumi’s opinion is straight forward. The logic of her reasoning is spelled out in the topic headings contained in the opinion’s table of contents. I paraphrase:
It is within the scope of judicial responsibility to review legislative action for compliance with statutory and constitutional requirements. The Open Meetings Law presumes that all governmental meetings will be open and subject to notice requirements. Legislative proceedings are not exempted from the requirements of the Open Meetings Law. Therefore the legislature must comply with the same Open Meeting rules that apply to other governmental entities. The evidence at trial demonstrated that the March 9, 2011 meeting did not comply with the Open Meetings Law. The Open Meetings Law authorizes the court to void actions undertaken in violation of the law’s terms, where the court finds that the public interest does not counsel in favor of sustaining the action. There is no public interest in favor of sustaining the act taken here, especially since the provisions of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 can easily be re-enacted by the legislature if it so wishes (provided that any legislative re-enactment complies with the requirements of the Open Meetings Law).
Reading through this summary, one might wonder what all the fuss is about. Continue reading “Judge Sumi Does Her Job”
Four thoughts in the aftermath of the debate Monday evening at Eckstein Hall between incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and his challenger in the April 5 election, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg:
First: As a news reporter, I’ve never covered a race for a Supreme Court seat. I was struck by how awkward the debate is, compared to the plain old partisan races I’ve covered fairly often. It’s similar to confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court justices: Basically, if you have something substantial to say, you can’t and shouldn’t say it. You can’t say what you would do with any potential upcoming issues. Frequently, you can’t (or won’t) comment on past actions, although Prosser did talk about some past cases and said he was glad to run on his record. So you end up standing there, saying repeatedly that you are independent and nonpartisan and will judge each case fairly and with an open mind. Which both Kloppenburg and Prosser did. But it is very clear that Prosser is being backed by conservatives and Republican-oriented groups and Kloppenburg is being backed by liberals and Democratic-leaning groups. Do all these people and groups know something the candidates don’t know? Are they wrong? Or is this a curious exercise in avoiding talking about the issues, even though everyone seems to know what you’d say if you did?
Two: I’ve been at some testy and tense debates and joint appearances by candidates in various races, but this one was way up the list, if it wasn’t the champion on my personal list. Continue reading “Supreme Court Candidates Debate: Testy Talk About Collegiality”
I was recently summoned to serve as a juror in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. As a 3L about to graduate, I have had some recent exposure in my classes and internships to the jury selection process. Being on the other side of the process, being in the pool of potential jurors, gave me some unique insights into the process that I think I may not have ever had otherwise. I took many notes during the course of my time in the pool of potential jurors, and I will share a number of these observations in my blog entries during the month of December. For myself, perhaps the most interesting thing I observed is how the experiences jurors have on the day of jury duty, before entering the courtroom, influence their moods or attitudes once they are in the courtroom.
The case I was in the jury pool for was State v. Curtis Forbes, a first-degree intentional homicide case being tried in Columbia County with a Jefferson County jury. A few weeks earlier, a Columbia County jury heard a Jefferson County case involving two counts of first-degree intentional homicide. This was reported in the press as an intentional “jury swap” between the two counties. Continue reading “Observations by a 3L in a First-Degree Intentional Homicide Jury Pool”
On June 24th, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled against a woman seeking legal recognition of her parental rights for the two children she adopted with her ex-partner. The two women adopted their children in 2002 and 2004 from Guatemala. The woman appealing, known in the record as Wendy, stayed at home with the children, while her partner, recorded as Liz, worked as an attorney. Liz was the legal adoptive parent so that the children could be on her healthcare plan. When the couple split up, the two women agreed to an informal custodial arrangement, but Wendy has no legal rights over or to her children. When Liz stopped allowing Wendy to see the children, Wendy lacked any legal recourse.
Wisconsin law does not permit same-sex couples adoptive rights; only one parent is the “legal parent.” The court justified its decision on the basis that Wisconsin law defines a “parent” as only the biological or adoptive parent. Wendy is neither of these and thus, at least under the law, not a parent at all.
This leads to questions that are more cultural than legal (though still legal, yes). How do we define parent? How do we define family? The Supreme Court has spoken to these questions, though not in the terms at issue here. Continue reading ““Past Formalities” and “Present Realities”: Why Wendy Isn’t a Parent at All”
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Pat Roggensack and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Ellen Brostrom are wary of almost all of the labels that people try to put on them and on other justices and judges.
But one label they are proud of is mother and daughter, and that was clear Thursday during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at the Law School. The two are believed to be the only mother and daughter to serve on the bench at the same time in Wisconsin history, Gousha said.
“You’ve just been an incredible role model for me,” Judge Brostrom told her mother. Justice Roggensack said she never intentionally put her daughter on the path to being a judge, but she agreed she was very pleased when Bostrom narrowly won election in 2009.
When Gousha asked how the two of them react to labels such as “conservative” or “liberal” when it comes to describing judges, Justice Roggensack said, “I think it’s a lazy definition.” The use of labels reflects the high degree of partisanship of the times, especially when it comes to elections. She said labels are useful in negative campaigning, which is the way campaigns “can hit hardest fastest.”
Most cases that come before the state Supreme Court don’t fit on a liberal-conservative axis, she said. Continue reading “Mother and Daughter, Justly Proud”