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Study: State needs 18 more judges

ImageIt has been eight years since Wisconsin created a new judgeship, but additional gavels should be banging around the state, according to a recent study.

An 18-month study of Wiscon-sin’s circuit court workload by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) recommended an increase of 18 judicial positions to compete with rising caseloads throughout the state.

The last judicial needs study was conducted over a decade ago and by all accounts, the new report is the most comprehensive ever in the state and perhaps the nation.

“I had spoken with a district court administrator, whom I highly respect, and he believed this study was the best he’s ever seen in the nation,” said Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. “To me, that was a tribute to the thoroughness and credibility of the report.”

Factual Backing

The need for additional judicial personnel has been a concern for years, but without substantial research to support the claim. The new analysis legitimizes the needs according to Wisconsin Director of State Courts A. John Voelker.

“The previous weighted caseload study was out of date and prior to asking for additional assistance for the courts, we wanted to make sure we did a detailed, updated study,” said Voelker who noted that an internal analysis was considered three years ago, but abandoned because of insufficient research methods.

The new study revisited the weighted caseload system, first analyzed in 1980, but enhanced the investigation to include more judicial input. In previous reports, only a sampling of judges were used, but this year’s study received input from 240 of the state’s 241 judges along with 109 circuit court commissioners.

“I think the advantage of this study is it provided a good snapshot of caseloads and a good analysis of judicial needs in the state,” said Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson.

In addition, the study took into account law adoptions and technological advancements since 1995, such as Truth in Sentencing and the revised CCAP Web site.

A formula was developed based on the information which revealed a need for 17.7 additional judicial officers.

“The recommendations were in the ballpark of what we expected,” said Voelker, who noted that the suggested number of judicial personnel for operation of the state circuit courts is 337.5. “Based on the last study’s methodology, it would have been around 290, but I’m just glad this report didn’t come back with 270.”

Assessing Need

While Voelker expected additional staffing to ease the judicial burden, questions remain as to where those burdens will be eased.

A series of criteria need to be met prior to recommendation for relief. Those include looking at where caseloads are the heaviest in relation to personnel, whether surrounding districts have available support and local commitment.

One location Voelker acknowledged as having already met requirements for assistance is Juneau County, which currently has one circuit court judge.

“There is certainly a dire need for a second judge and that’s without including help from other districts and court commissioners,” said Juneau County Circuit Court Judge John P. Roemer.

Roemer was elected in 2004, but was told judicial assistance has been needed in the county since 1995. He noted that court resources were further strained by peripheral responsibilities associated with the New Lisbon prison, which opened in 2003.

Despite a work week that consistently challenges 70 hours, Roemer said he struggles to keep up with his calendar.

“We are required to file our decisions within 90 days, but because of the budgeted caseload, I get behind in filing and have to request extensions,” said Roemer.

Juneau has already gained County Board approval for expansion and the Mauston courthouse, constructed in 2002, has room to accommodate two additional judges.

In Voelker’s eyes, those factors make Juneau a strong candidate for relief.

“We had targeted Juneau County for several years and they will certainly be at, or near, the top of the list,” said Voelker who plans to draft and submit a request with recommended locations this spring.

Probable Outcome

Should the state Legislature adopt the recommendations, Voelker believes it would go a long way in stabilizing the system, but admitted it was not a solution.

The report also suggested annual reviews of new laws and their impact on case processing, workload standard updates every five years and a three-year average of case filings to determine judicial need.

“I have confidence in the quality of this report and certainly hope it makes it way through the Legislature,” said Justice Bradley, who also noted that creation of 18 new positions may not necessarily be realistic.
Voelker conceded that the state’s recent financial situation would not have allowed for additional judicial personnel, but he hopes the study will help cement allotted funds into his state court budget.

If the legislation does pass this year, any additional judgeships would be filled through an open election in April 2008.

“Even if the Legislature passes a law to provide for new judgeships, there won’t be any until 2008,” noted Abrahamson. “By then, we can expect 150,000 more cases than we handled in 1999.”

Whether relief comes swiftly or slowly, the hope is that it comes eventually.

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