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2013 Year in Review: How circuit judges fared at appeals, Supreme Court

Lady-Justice_1The Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued 1,045 decisions in 2013. Of those cases, it upheld about 83 percent of them.

From a numbers perspective, that’s not terribly different from years past. The number of cases the court deals with each year – as well as how many it upholds – ebbs and flows, but it hasn’t changed dramatically in the past decade.

What does change, according to the judges, are the types of cases that get appealed each year. Each judge had their own take on the past year’s trends, as noted below.

Overall, in 2013 the appellate court was tasked with tackling many cases that still rage on in the court, from Act 10 aftermath to immunity for first responders.

And the court was not immune to continued fallout from the economic downturn. Two judges said they are seeing more and more appeals of foreclosure cases. Deputy Chief Judge Michael Hoover, who presides over District III and has been on the Court of Appeals since 1997, said he is seeing more pro se cases, which also could be at least partially attributed to the recession.

The decisions made at the Court of Appeals aren’t always popular, Hoover said, though the frustration goes both ways.

“I have to deal with my colleagues’ frustration over being reversed,” he said. “I just remind them that if they think they get reversed a lot, you should see what the [state] Supreme Court does to District III.”

Judge Pat Curley,
District I Court of Appeals

CurleyMilwaukee County has always seen more criminal appeals than civil, observed Judge Pat Curley, who presides over District I, in which the county lies.

Still, of the civil cases that came to her district this year, she said she found it interesting that a few challenged arbitration proceedings themselves, especially in light of an increased emphasis on alternative dispute resolution.

In all types of cases, Milwaukee County had the highest rate, 89 percent, of circuit judges whose cases were upheld in 2013. The Court of Appeals reversed just 34 cases that came from Milwaukee’s circuit judges. The next closest was District II, which includes Waukesha County and a good portion of the counties that border Lake Michigan.

Unlike judges in smaller counties, Curley said, who have presided over every case that comes into the court, Milwaukee’s judges are able to specialize and “deal with [similar] issues day in and day out.”

“Domestic abuse cases, homicide, drug court; after a while you get to know all those laws,” Curley said.

Chief Judge Richard Brown,
District II Court of Appeals

BrownChief Judge Richard Brown, who has served on the Court of Appeals since 1978 and works in District II, said he found it interesting in 2013 to see an influx of challenges to drunken-driving convictions.

Stricter enforcement and drunken-driving laws have resulted in more defendants trying to get their case thrown out or reversed, he said. In particular, Brown said, more defendants now try to challenge the validity of the stop that lead to the charge.

He also observed an uptick in criminal cases, as civil cases declined. Brown said a shift toward alternative dispute resolution may be part of the reason.

“I think mediation has something to do with it,” Brown said. “I think cost has something to do with it. Several attorneys have told me in passing that many clients think it’s just too expensive to appeal now.”

Deputy Chief Judge Michael Hoover,
District III Court of Appeals

HooverAs fallout from the 2008 recession continued, Deputy Chief Judge Michael Hoover, who presides over District III, said he saw an “inordinate number of foreclosure cases” in 2013.

Sometimes the effects of such a major event may take a couple of years to trickle into his court, he said.

In addition, Hoover, who has been on the Court of Appeals since 1997, said he is seeing more and more cases from family court that are being appealed with no attorney.

Reading an appeal and writing an opinion with those who are representing themselves ends up being more work, he said, and statements of issue often look more like a “conglomeration of gripes.”

“You’re supposed to try to dig out whatever possible meritorious argument may be in there,” Hoover said. “It’s just an arduous and difficult process.”

Judge Brian Blanchard,
District IV Court of Appeals

BlanchardJudge Brian Blanchard, who is the presiding judge for District IV, also said he saw “an unusual proportion of foreclosure appeals” come through in 2013.

Like Hoover, he thought the trend was a “consequence of the economic downturn” and the desperation some residents have to keep their homes and stay afloat.

Blanchard, whose district includes Dane County, pointed out that many of those appeals came from summary judgments that judges granted for borrowers. The defendants subsequently filed claims that the plaintiffs didn’t properly submit, he said.

The delay in reaching the courts makes sense, Blanchard said, when taking into consideration the timeline it takes for a person to fall behind on payments and ultimately lose their home.

“There’s an automatic lag here,” he said, “for a combination of factors.”

How circuit court judges fared
at the state  Supreme Court in 2013

The Wisconsin Law Journal once again compiled a comprehensive review of all circuit court decisions that went on to the Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court in 2013. Below is a complete listing of judges who initially ruled on cases considered by the justices in 2013, and whether the high court affirmed or reversed the appealed decision.

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How circuit court judges fared at the state Court of Appeals in 2013

A note on methodology: 

Only full decisions, not summary decisions, by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals included on the Wisconsin Court System’s website were counted in the compilation of data. Despite efforts to avoid errors, a judge could be listed in the decision as the presiding judge being reversed, even if he or she merely entered an order consistent with the law of the case as established by another judge.

A judge could be reversed in the Court of Appeals and ultimately be affirmed at the state Supreme Court, but the earlier reversal would nevertheless remain counted as a reversal in the Court of Appeals.

It also is important to note that as the law changes, so can a judge’s holding. At the time it was issued, a judge’s holding could be entirely consistent with binding precedent and later be reversed only because a subsequent decision changed the law.

— Data gathered by Sarah McQuin and David Ziemer

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About WISCONSIN LAW JOURNAL STAFF

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