Heavy snowfall is commonplace this winter, but accumulations of more than a foot earlier this month forced a rare event in southeastern Wisconsin.
Court was not in session on Feb. 6.
Several court systems, including Milwaukee County Circuit Courts, closed their doors for all or part of the day. The aftermath required thousands of cases around the area to be rescheduled, but most officials agreed that the severe weather left them little choice.
In addition to Milwaukee, courts in Ozaukee, Rock, Waukesha, Dane and Jefferson counties along with the state Court of Appeals in Districts I, II and IV and the Eastern District Bankruptcy Courts closed at some point during the day. The courts in Washington County remained open, but hearings were suspended for the day.
Aside from two jury trials being delayed a day, the U.S. District Courts in both the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin did not encounter any significant backlog because of the weather.
“We don’t want to close the courts for that reason,” said District 1 Chief Judge Kitty K. Brennan who conferred with County Executive Scott Walker and the County Sheriff’s office early Feb. 6. “At that point, the risk to the public and the employees’ safety outweighed the need to process cases and have the courts and county offices open to the public.”
Milwaukee Chief Deputy Clerk of Court Jim Smith could not recall another time during his nearly 25 years in Milwaukee that the courts were closed for an entire day. Clerk of Court John W. Barrett said since 1998, the courts have closed early on two occasions, on Sept. 11, 2001 and last year during a snowstorm.
The joint decision to close for the day did not exempt Barrett or other clerks from working through the weather. Contacting attorneys and other staff to inform them of the closure became a top priority during the early morning hours.
“I was here on Wednesday and was basically on a switchboard fielding calls galore from jurors,” said Barrett, who excused them for the day. “Getting in touch with all the litigants is a significant chore and, to a large extent, the reason why people are hesitant to shut it (the court system) down.”
Other Courts Closed
The same was true for Rock County Clerk of Court Eldred Mielke, who fielded a “couple hundred” calls, some regarding the rescheduling of cases.
“Everything gets put on the corresponding judge’s agenda as fast as judicial assistants can,” said Mielke, who added that some cases could be delayed as much as two weeks depending on a judge’s calendar and the availability of attorneys, witnesses or experts.
Since becoming clerk of courts 11 years ago, Mielke said it was the first time the system was forced to shutdown for an entire day, but it was also the most convenient day for a closure, in terms of volume.
Mielke said that Wednesdays are typically “low traffic” days at the courthouse, compared to Tuesdays and Thursdays which routinely have “one or two hundred” people show up for traffic court and Mondays which feature jury selection.
“If the courthouse had to close, Wednesday was the best day Mother Nature could have picked,” said Mielke.
Both Barrett and Mielke said the majority of cases in Milwaukee and Rock counties were rescheduled by Feb. 7.
Misdemeanor Court Judge John Siefert had the most crowded calendar in Milwaukee with 62 cases scheduled for Feb. 6, many of which were pre-trial hearings. He indicated that most of the cases were immediately rescheduled and disposed of the following day.
“I did about 100 cases on Thursday morning, most of which were rescheduled from the day before,” said Siefert. “We didn’t get done early, but we didn’t work into the lunch hour and didn’t work past five.”
Siefert credited the district attorney’s office for having files readily available as well as attorneys and individuals for voluntarily coming to court.
“The majority of people came in on their own because we had no way of contacting them overnight,” said Siefert. “As people and their attorneys showed up, we’d try and fit them in.”
Court in Session… Sort of
Other circuit court systems in the area managed to keep their doors open for a portion or all of the day.
Washington County Clerk of Court Kristine Deiss said it is county policy for the court to remain open, but all court hearings were canceled for the day as mandated by the judges.
“We received the judges’ directive on Tuesday and we managed to get in touch with most of the parties about rescheduling cases the day before,” said Deiss, who estimated about 15 of her 26-person staff reported to work on Feb. 6.
She also said only eight people came to the courthouse desk for legal-related matters throughout the day. The light volume allowed Deiss to work relatively uninterrupted, but she said the decision to keep some aspects of the courts functioning, while suspending others is a question of public safety.
“Certainly, if the courts are open and there is a commitment to cases, on a criminal action someone who doesn’t show up could have a warrant issued for their arrest,” said Deiss.
“You are putting those people at risk too, so from my perspective, at least officials were wise enough to cancel court hearings.”
That was not the case in Jefferson, Dane and Waukesha Counties, which processed cases until mid-afternoon.
District 3 Chief Judge J. Mac Davis said several cases in Jefferson County were adjourned because attorneys or other parties could not attend, but much of the calendar in Waukesha was cleared prior to closing.
“I and others were able to get some p.m. matters in during the morning, so that by mid-morning, very little was left on any afternoon court calendars,” said Davis. “People were able to get in Wednesday morning, thanks to light traffic, but adjournments by phone requests were liberally granted.”
Davis said “no meaningful disruption in court business has occurred” because of the weather.
The courts in Dane County closed non-essential offices at 1 p.m. and District 5 Chief Judge C. William Foust said most everyone else left around 2:30 p.m.
“Some cases had to be adjourned, but the vast majority of things on the schedule got done,” said Foust. “I thought it was pretty much business as usual, because it was not that bad in the morning.”