State Supreme Court justices are reluctant to require counties pay the cost of expanding civil appointments, so they may turn to the State Bar for money instead.
On Monday, the court considered ways to pay for a proposed expansion of civil appointments in state that could cost an estimated $56 million a year. Though the justices put off adoption of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s proposal to request the State Bar’s Access to Justice Commission to invest $100,000 in the “design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation,” of expanded appointments for indigent people, the court did consider asking the bar for money to develop one or more pilot projects to test the proposal.
Several justices questioned the appropriateness of asking the bar to pay for a pilot program, through a commission the Supreme Court established, without knowledge of how the programs would operate.
“I don’t get the concept of handing out something labeled and an order with a suggestion attached to it,” Justice Michael Gableman said during the open administrative conference Monday. “Especially when it’s directed at a group we have supervisory power over and I’m not confident in what we are actually recommending.”
Gableman said he didn’t like the idea of the court pressuring the commission to petition the bar for money to pay for the pilot programs, without providing more insight into how the programs would work.
Justice Patience Roggensack supported the idea of a pilot program, but said she doesn’t want the court to ask the bar to provide money in a vacuum.
“I don’t want to set up the expectation and then find out that $100,000 was used for set up and there was nothing left for actually paying attorneys for appointments,” she said. “If that is the case, then we haven’t done anything.”
For that reason, she encouraged the court to hold a public hearing on the plan to establish a pilot program, in order to solicit opinions on how to efficiently and effectively spend the money.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said a pilot program to broaden the appointment of civil counsel for indigent people appears to be a perfect fit for the Access to Justice Commission, however.
“If we have a fund set aside to use for this very purpose,” she said, “I think we should explore the options presented here. Why not use that source of money rather than taxpayer money.”
Gregg Moore, chairman of the Access to Justice Commission Board, said if the court urged the commission to request money from the bar, members would take it into consideration.
“We might determine a pilot project needs $500,000,” he said, “and take a hard look at what we can do for $100,000.”
The Supreme Court formed the 17-member Access to Justice Commission in 2009 and the State Bar agreed to invest up to $300,000 for the first three years of operation.
Moore said he estimated the bar had about $170,000 remaining in its reserves for the commission.
“I don’t think it is at all an unreasonable request,” he said of the pilot program proposal. “But it would still be the bar’s call.”
Abrahamson’s recommendation came in response to a September 2010 petition filed by John Ebbott, executive director of Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc., calling for attorney appointments in civil cases that involve protection of a poor person’s “rights to basic human needs, including sustenance, shelter, clothing, heat, medical care, safety and child custody and placement.”