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High court sets hearing for civil appointments (PHOTO SLIDESHOW)

High court sets hearing for civil appointments (PHOTO SLIDESHOW)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court debates a volunteer State Bar Association during an Open Administrative Conference on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Madison. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)
The Wisconsin Supreme Court debates a voluntary State Bar association during an Open Administrative Conference on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Madison. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is weighing the value of requiring attorney appointments in most civil cases in circuit court.

Those appointments could cost as much as $56 million annually.

The court voted unanimously Wednesday to schedule a public hearing in fall on the petition, which attorney John Ebbott submitted Sept. 30.

Ebbott said he was pleased the court decided to take up the petition, but acknowledged the significant cost associated with implementing the proposal could be a tough sell to the court, which would have to work with the Legislature to approve the money.

But he plans to put the amount in perspective at the public hearing.

“It is two-tenths of one percent of the entire state budget,” Ebbott said.

“This seems pretty vanilla,” said Justice Michael Gableman of the decision to move forward with a hearing.

According to the petition, the court would amend Supreme Court Rule 11.02 and establish criteria for court-appointed counsel at public expense for indigent litigants, who are defined as having an income below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Attorneys would be appointed to “protect the litigant’s rights to basic human needs, including sustenance, shelter, clothing, heat, medical care, safety and child custody and placement.”

In deciding whether an attorney should be appointed, the court can take into account the complexity of the case and the litigant’s personal characteristics, such as age, mental capacity, education and knowledge of the law.

While the Constitution mandates legal representation in criminal cases, there is no such provision for civil litigation.

Ebbott, who is the executive director of Legal Action of Wisconsin, has acknowledged the proposal could be a hard sell, given the estimated annual cost. He has recommended ways to cover the costs, should the court adopt the petition.

One option is to pay for appointments out of the Court Support Services Surcharge. Another alternative offered by Ebbott includes a $9.85 tax increase for each Wisconsin resident to generate the money needed to provide civil counsel to poor people in the state.

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