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Senate judges bill awaits executive committee action

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Director of State Courts A. John Voelker tells the state Senate Judiciary and Corrections Committee about the need for seven additional judges in the state. Voelker’s comments came during a Sept. 11 public hearing before the Senate Committee at the state Capitol.

WLJ Photo by Jack Zemlicka

Justice delayed is justice denied.

Those were the sentiments of Wisconsin State Rep. Sheryl K. Albers, R-Juneau, after the fourth meeting of the Senate Judiciary and Corrections Committee regarding SB 199.

The Sept. 11 hearing concluded public discussion on the bill, which seeks additional judgeships in Barron, Chippewa, Dodge, Green, Juneau, Monroe and St. Croix counties.

Wisconsin has not added a new judge since 1999.

Director of State Courts A. John Voelker, who was the lone speaker, diagrammed the methodology and reiterated his support of the bill which is expected to reach the executive committee in the next few weeks.

“The general rule is that the committee doesn’t like to exec bills the same day as the hearing, so in talking with staff it looks like in the next couple of weeks, they’ll schedule the specific exec session,” said Voelker, who expressed a sense of urgency in moving the legislation along.

“They are very tuned into our need to push it around because if we don’t get through everything by Nov. 15, the judgeships that are due to 2008 won’t happen and we can’t get the election papers and everything in place for them to run in April,” said Voelker.

Seven Judges Proposed

According to the bill, six of the counties would have a new branch established on Aug. 1, 2008. Monroe County would receive an additional judge on Aug. 1, 2010.

Senator Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, who is chairman of the Judiciary and Corrections Committee and the primary author of the bill, was optimistic that the process of pushing the legislation through both houses by mid-November was possible.

“We are trying to push towards that and I think it’s doable,” said Taylor. “People need to make sure we can have the judges on the ballot, so it needs to get through the Legislature given the need to get signatures in December.”

Judicial candidates will circulate their papers in December and must file everything by Jan. 2 to be included in the April 2008 election.

Albers also noted that counties are in the process of shaping their annual budgets and determining whether or not to include funding for additional judicial positions.

“(In) counties like Juneau County or Monroe County, the question is do they set this money aside as part of their budget? And if they say ‘We don’t see any action.’ then why would they set aside the money?” said Albers. “It’s important that we send the message that we’re going forward and we’re going to make sure the opportunity to put them on the ballot exists because that’s the most efficient mechanism for getting an additional judge.”

Next Steps

If the bill is advanced by the executive committee, it would move to the Assembly Committee on Corrections and Courts, chaired by Rep. Gary Bies, who is a co-sponsor of SB 199. From there it would go to the Joint Finance Committee and finally to the Senate and Assembly for approval.

Based on a fiscal estimate submitted by Voelker’s office, the total state costs would be approximately $1.6 million.

“When we’re talking about over $1 million, it’s going to be a matter of whether the Legislature can swallow the cost,” said Voelker.

Taylor said there is substantial support in both the Assembly and Senate for the bill especially after members toured several of the counties recommended for judicial aid.

“We’ve taken what we do in this committee to the streets, to each different locality to allow people to testify; lawyers, judges and citizens,” said Taylor who noted she has heard little opposition at this point.

“Mostly, it is, include me in the process, we want a judge too.”

Court Commissioners

One issue raised by Taylor and committee member Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, was how the roles of court commissioners factored into the assessment. Voelker explained that while accounting for the impact commissioners have on case processing is important, it is hard to determine how they can be used in lieu of new judges.

“It’s a very difficult part of this,” said Voelker. “Partly because if they were state employees, I could then use the weighted caseload study to move them around and help assist in areas that need assistance, but they’re not.”

Voelker noted that someone suggested he give every county a minimum court commissioner offset that would then pressure counties to use court commissioners before they would go forward and ask for a judge.

“That would, in essence, mean having me mandate court commissioners in all the counties to some extent and I don’t think any of us want to be mandating back to the counties how they should use their resources,” said Voelker.

Taylor suggested that utilizing court commissioners is something which will likely be addressed in the futur
e.

“How can we maximize what we’re doing with the use of court commissioners; that’s something we’ll have to tweak in the process,” said Taylor. “I wish I could say, ‘You need to use a court commissioner as much as you can first,’ but the courts are already having some challenges.”

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