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Justices approve rule change concerning budgeting process (UPDATE)

Despite a sometimes-heated conversation that lasted more than two hours, Wisconsin justices approved a change to their rules Wednesday that aims to keep the state Supreme Court better informed during the state courts’ budget drafting process.

The rule change, put forth by Justice Pat Roggensack in 2012, gained near unanimous support during the court’s open rules conference Wednesday, not long after Roggensack and her supporting justices told the others that it was not an attempt to limit the power of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who historically has been the one that receives the most detailed financial information about the state courts’ budget.

Roggensack said she sought to have the chief gather and share budget information with all seven Supreme Court justices, long before they have to approve the budget proposal and send it to the governor.

Abrahamson abstained from voting on the matter. She said she would file a written response.

The change will require the Office of Director of State Courts – which is tasked with creating a budget – to consult with the finance committee throughout the process. The court formed the finance committee in 2011. It includes the chief justice, two other justices, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals and the chief of the chief circuit judges.

Discussions about the committee’s role have lingered for several years. It took 19 months to enact Roggensack’s proposed change, and justices have said they wanted to approve the petition soon in order to start participating in the next biennial budget cycle.

It was clear going into Wednesday’s conference that Roggensack had the votes to pass the measure in Justices Michael Gableman, Annette Ziegler and David Prosser, all of whom had voiced their approval when the court last discussed the change Jan. 21.

However, Abrahamson would not take a vote that day, explaining on Wednesday that she “didn’t think it was ready to be heard” at that time.

Much of Wednesday’s discussion pertained to Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s concerns about the change.

In particular, Abrahamson and Bradley took issue with the use of the word “consult” in the petition. They both said they were concerned about the way that word could be interpreted, and that it would allow the committee to do more than merely talk with other offices during the budget process.

“I want it not to mean oversight of the courts budget,” Bradley said.

Roggensack defended it several times, though, refusing to yield to alternate words Abrahamson proposed.

“I think ‘consult’ is necessary to be a part of the rule,” Roggensack said, adding that it gives the committee “more than just a passive role.”

And Bradley, acknowledging “this rush to get this passed,” pointed out what she saw as a potential constitutional problem in that the rule could take power away from the chief justice. Citing a clause that calls the chief justice the “administrative head of the judicial system,” she said the court needs “to be careful” to pass it if there are any issues.

Still, Roggensack, Gableman, Prosser and Ziegler said several times that the committee was not formed as a “power grab,” but rather, an informational tool.

“I’m not sitting here as part of a coup to destroy the constitutional power of the chief justice,” Prosser said.

Roggensack also had proposed changing the court’s internal operating procedure, which would have given the committee a big role in developing the budget and approving expenses the court incurs. However, she withdrew that proposal late last month.

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