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Judges, attorneys and litigants make best of case backlog

Miss a court appointment on a warm summer day and chances are the sitting judge will not have a very sunny disposition. Do the same a day after a foot of snow has fallen and the reaction may be less icy.

That was the situation many litigants and attorneys faced on the morning of Feb. 7, after substantial snowfalls forced several circuit courts in Southeastern Wisconsin to close for all or part of Feb. 6.

District 1 Chief Judge Kitty K. Brennan estimated that more than one thousand cases, ranging from plea agreements to trials, were postponed by the severe weather. Almost a week after the storm, most cases in Milwaukee County had been disposed of or rescheduled, according to Clerk of Court John Barrett, but not without the cooperative efforts of everyone involved.

“While we don’t want people to put their lives at risk, skipping court is not generally looked upon favorably by the courts,” said Barrett. “This was an extreme situation and under extreme circumstances, you may find more flexibility.”

Misdemeanor Court Judge Daniel A. Noonan was forced to reschedule 44 cases calendared for Feb. 6. Only in two cases did he issue bench warrants, both involving pro se litigants charged with Operation after Revocation (OAR).

According to Noonan, a court directive issued in the wake of the storm indicated judges should issue warrants for those parties who failed to contact the courts or could not be contacted by the courts one day after the storm.

Noonan indicated that the directive was meant to be used as a guideline for judges due to the substantial number of cases which needed to be rescheduled. In his case, he waited two days before issuing bench warrants.

“I understand that a non-appearance is more likely after a snow day, but at the same time, the court has to maintain jurisdiction over that person,” said Noonan. “It’s only in a total miss did we issue a warrant.”

He said in the majority of his cases, attorneys or litigants called the court to inquire about the status of their respective cases. On several occasions, an attorney or pro se litigant was put on speakerphone while the case number was called and a new appearance date was set for the record.

“We had one pro se call in who was charged with drug possession who called in and we issued him a new date,” said Noonan, who indicated that in-custody cases were given scheduling priority.

“If there was a defendant in custody, we couldn’t just send out a notice, so because of the sensitivity of those cases, we wanted to get those turned around pretty rapidly,” added Noonan.

By the close of Feb. 11, Noonan said he had scheduled or disposed of all but the two cases originally calendared for Feb. 6.

“Three working days to clean up one,” said Noonan.

Trial and Error

For defense attorney W. Timothy Steinle, the closure was an abrupt disruption of an ongoing jury trial in a personal injury case.

Steinle said Judge Michael J. Dwyer postponed the trial late Tuesday afternoon and directed the jury to report back at noon the following day.

“I think everyone thought the storm was coming Tuesday night,” said Steinle, who was greeted Wednesday morning by a foot of snow and news that the courts had been closed.

Unable to reach Judge Dwyer, Steinle contacted his client and a member of the prosecution to arrange an 8:30 a.m. meeting at the courthouse on Thursday morning. To Steinle’s relief, Dwyer contacted him early Thursday morning and said the trial would resume at 10 a.m.

“Considering all the confusion, I was amazed that all 12 jurors were not only contacted, but made it in,” said Steinle. “My faith was restored that jurors really take their duty seriously.”

Though his client expressed concern about the impact the one-day delay would have on the jury, Steinle ultimately won the case which concluded that Thursday.

“In my 28 years of practicing, I’ve never had a trial interrupted by weather,” said Steinle. “Nobody liked the disruption, but I thought it was handled extremely well.”

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