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Court system reviews caseload data

Like most goals worth pursuing, this one is requiring a group of mostly judges to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

The goal is to obtain additional judicial officers for Wisconsin. The work is collecting and analyzing data to demonstrate the need.

Dane County Chief Judge Michael N. Nowakowski chairs the Wisconsin Court System’s Weighted Caseload Advisory Commit-tee, which was formed last year to obtain the evidence it will need when approaching the other two branches of government.

Weighted Caseload: A More Accurate Measure

Nowakowski is confident the group will obtain solid empirical evidence, because they are working from a blueprint put forth by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), with staff there to help organize and analyze data using a weighted caseload methodology.

Weighted caseload, per the NCSC’s Web site, is “a method used to translate court cases into workload for judges and court staff. While case filings can help determine the demands placed on state courts, unadjusted case-filing numbers offer only minimal guidance as to the amount of judicial work generated by those case filings. Moreover, the inability to differentiate the work associated with each case type could create the misperception that equal numbers of cases filed for two different case types result in equivalent workloads. Cases vary in complexity, and different types of cases require different amounts of time and attention from judicial officers and court support staff.”

The NCSC, incidentally, helped the state court system 10 years ago, the last time it examined its caseloads, says Director of State Courts John Voelker.

Voelker, a committee member, says, “We were one of the first states to use the weighted caseload approach [with NCSC], and they have done it in numerous states elsewhere since then and have really perfected it.”

The weighted caseload approach goes back even further in Wisconsin, says Dr. Matthew Kleiman, a research associate with the NCSC in Williamsburg, VA., who is working with the committee. The first was conducted in the state in 1980, but not with his organization’s assistance.

The NCSC has assisted with similar studies in approximately 30 states or jurisdictions since it began using this methodology, says Kleiman.

The goal of the process is to objectively assess the need for judicial officers and to obtain the equitable distribution of judicial resources.

Sometimes the findings clearly substantiate a pressing need for more judgeships. A recent study in California concluded that over 300 judges were needed. The legislature there responded with a plan to add 50 judges annually over three years, where the shortage is the most critical. Other times, the results point more toward a redistribution of resources, such as in a 2002 study in Minnesota.

Wisconsin Jurists Overwhelmingly Respond

The task began last October, when the committee asked every state judge, plus a sizeable number of its court commissioners, to track their time, as is done by attorneys in private practice. They used an online system developed by the NCSC to enter data about every aspect of their workdays: the types of court proceedings they encountered and how long each matter took, administrative time, time in the community and even time taken for lunch breaks. This was done for all 21 workdays, as well as any evening and weekend work time, of that month.

Nowakowski recalls, “Every minute of a judge’s time was reported, and it was all done over the Internet. It was a very ingenious process developed by the National Center, which was very simple to use, and that undoubtedly contributed to the outpouring of responses, so that 240 of the state’s 241 judges participated.”

The numbers speak volumes about the dedication of his colleagues, he adds. “The National Center was flabbergasted by the response rate. We’d done the best we could to make a ‘sales pitch’ on how important this was: That we would be taking this information to the governor and the Legislature, and how important it would be to point out the universal sampling that was done. So that the conclusions that ultimately come out of all this will ultimately be more credible.”

A 50 percent response rate is usually looked upon favorably, so Wisconsin’s rate was nothing short of remarkable, says Kleiman.

The next step will be to evaluate their responses, to be accomplished by “Delphi Groups” consisting of judges and court commissioners. In late April or early May, they will look specifically at how many minutes, on average, are needed to conduct various proceedings, among the many tasks judicial officers perform, and will consider the reasonableness of the numbers.

The Delphi Groups are really just added quality assurance, says Nowakowski. They are being formed currently. Members will be chosen based upon many factors, including years of experience on the bench and if their participation will bring geographic diversity to a particular group — because jurists from one-judge counties might look at things very differently than those from multi-judge counties, he states.

The committee’s report and recommendations should be made public in August.

Because the 1996 study did not look into the role of court commissioners to any great extent, the upcoming report should give judges, the public and lawmakers a better idea of how the court system functions, says Voelker.

The 1996 study concluded that Wisconsin needed 290 judges, he continues. Case filings are up considerably since then. The last year that Wisconsin added judgeships was 1999, in Oconto and Waupaca Counties.

What the results won’t be used for, Voelker cautions, is to esta
blish minimum or maximum time allotments for processing certain types of cases. There will be no “institutionalization” of justice.

The project has been in the works for many years, he notes, and was not fueled by the disputes in recent years regarding court funding in Milwaukee County.

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