Discussion on a series of proposals aimed at improving civility and public trust in the Wisconsin Supreme Court may take place behind closed doors pending a vote by the justices next month to narrow the focus of open administrative conferences.
Justice Patience Roggensack has asked the court to consider restricting public conference discussions to pending rules petitions in order to improve efficiency and eliminate internal agenda items.
With a dozen rules petitions awaiting action or scheduling by the court, according to its website, Roggensack said she and her colleagues need to focus on eliminating the backlog.
“I don’t see the court having a lot of extra time on its hands to philosophize in open administrative conference,” she said, “and I want to get back to business.”
But if the court does opt to narrow discussion topics at open administrative conferences, one of the immediate casualties could be a September proposal from Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson on ways the court can improve its public image. Her suggestions include having a vote of four justices not be considered a majority and holding oral arguments outside of Madison two or three times a year.
Madison attorney Steve Levine said it would be a mistake to cut the public out of being able to see the court address such issues.
“I definitely think they should be going the other way,” he said. “The justices are essentially public figures and I think they have a responsibility to do this in public.”
Levine is involved in three rules petitions currently pending before the court, but he said timely discussion of those petitions should not come at the expense of transparency.
The three petitions he helped submit – proposing abolition of the mandatory bar, changes to State Bar bylaws and having the Board of Bar Examiners be subject to open records law – are time consuming, he said.
“Some just take a long time,” Levine said. “It’s a little inefficient, but that doesn’t mean the court should be changing what it does in public.
At the most recent open administrative conference Jan. 19, Roggensack asked her fellow justices to take up her proposal, which had been buried on agendas since October. They voted 4-3 to discuss it first at the court’s next conference the week of Feb. 27.
If adopted by the court, Roggensack said, it would take effect immediately. That would put future public discussion of Abrahamson’s recommendations to improve public relations in jeopardy.
Abrahamson said her proposals on public trust and confidence in the court are on the February open conference agenda and she didn’t know if that would changed, pending approval of Roggensack’s proposal.
“We’re going to have to see,” she said. “One of the hallmarks of the court system is open administrative conferences to discuss rules, but also to discuss other administrative matters. We’ll see what the court decides.”
Abrahamson voted in the minority Jan. 19, with Ann Walsh Bradley and Patrick Crooks, and called Roggensack’s plan a “radical proposal.” Prior to the February discussion of the proposal, she said, she is researching the scope of topics the court has discussed in open conference since 1999.
Levine said he doesn’t buy Roggensack’s argument that the court would become more efficient under the change. He said it would only limit public access.
But Roggensack said the court’s priority is to decide and issue case opinions, something the court could spend more time doing if it streamlined its open administrative conference agendas.
As to if or where the court would discuss ways to improve its image in the public’s eye, she said, that could be done through seminars or meeting with other justices from throughout the country.
“I don’t think the seven of us just sitting out there talking about it solves a thing,” Roggensack said. “It takes a lot of time and unfortunately, ends up have a tone I don’t like.”