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Lawmakers, judges disagree on law degree legislation

Requiring municipal judges to possess a law degree would help avoid giving carte blanche to local law enforcement and city attorneys, a legislator said Thursday.

During a state Assembly public hearing Thursday, State Rep. Frederick Kessler, D-Milwaukee, called into question the merit of the municipal court judge profession, which does not require the elected official to possess a law degree. Kessler authored Assembly Bill 101, which would require municipal judges to have a law degree.

“The biggest issue that gets discussed,” Kessler said during the hearing, “is a municipal judge who is not an attorney does what the city attorney or what the local police department wants and is afraid to exercise independent judgment.

“This isn’t to protect judges; it’s to protect citizens.”

During the hearing, Kessler received stiff resistance from several municipal judges who disputed his assertions that a law degree makes a judge more confident in his or her beliefs.

“I was offended by the statement made that non-lawyer judges would tend to side with the police department,” said JoAnn Eiring, a town of Brookfield judge and president of the Wisconsin Municipal Judges Association, who does not have a law degree. “I think it’s a personality issue as far as confidence goes.”

Municipal court typically involves more minor cases, including traffic-related offenses, disorderly conduct or truancy. Of the 239 municipal judges in the state, 116 are lawyers, according to written testimony provided by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

Eiring, a judge for 20 years, said, as with any job, the more time a person spends being a judge, the more comfortable they become in the position.

“I know when I was first elected I spent that night thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I just do?’” she said. “But it all just falls into place. I had opposition (during elections) more than not because attorneys think I’m an easy prey I guess.”

Kessler, a lawyer and former circuit court judge, reiterated that his legislation isn’t meant to protect judges, but the citizens whose cases are being reviewed.

“I suspect nobody here would go to a physician who hasn’t graduated from medical school,” he said. “You wouldn’t go to a dentist who didn’t graduate from a dentist school.

“I think you shouldn’t be required to appear before a judge who does not have legal training.”

Kessler’s bill would create a statewide requirement, but similar requirements already exist at the municipal level in some areas of Wisconsin.

The city of Milwaukee, which handles 150,000 cases a year – the most in the state – requires its municipal judges to be attorneys.

Kessler said state statutes currently allow multiple local governments to create multi-jurisdictional municipal courts, or if need be, the cases can be sent to circuit court.

“I don’t think we are in effect depriving municipalities from the ability to have a convenient court,” he said. “It’s important we have people who are judges be trained in law.”

But it’s the northern municipalities that would suffer under the bill, said Derek Mosley, a city of Milwaukee municipal court judge. Villages such as Boyceville, in northwest Dunn County, couldn’t staff a municipal judge if the bill became law, Mosley said, because there are no attorneys living there.

As it stands, Brad Hickson, a parole officer, serves as Boyceville’s municipal judge.

“I think it would cripple many courts,” Eiring said. “And to throw all those cases into circuit court, that would cripple their system. They certainly don’t want all these cases in circuit court either.”

Expanding the use of multi-jurisdictional municipal courtrooms, Eiring said, would water down the extremely important purpose of the local-level process.

“The whole purpose of the municipal court is to make it your hometown,” she said. “People who come to municipal court, it’s usually their first kick at the cat, so you want to do it right, take the time and try to make sure they don’t come back.

“You want to make it as personal as possible so they don’t pick up that second offense.”

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