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Tackling a tough year

By: Jane Pribek//February 16, 2012//

Tackling a tough year

By: Jane Pribek//February 16, 2012//

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Before Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi drew State ex rel. Ozanne v. Fitzgerald in her docket, she never imagined any case in her court would thrust her so completely into the national spotlight.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in the Open Meetings challenge to the Wisconsin Legislature’s passage of the controversial budget repair bill this past spring.

Sumi entered an order voiding the law, a move that drew praise, criticism — and personal attacks.

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed her decision.

The case continues. On Dec. 30, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed a motion to reopen in the state’s high court, alleging Justice Michael Gableman should have recused himself.

Because the matter is pending, Sumi, Dane County’s presiding judge, cannot discuss it, other than to note that she hopes it illustrated two important lessons.

The first being: circuit judges do not get to choose their cases.

“We can’t just say when a case like this comes in that has red flags all over it, ‘No thanks. I’d rather not,’” she said.

“We really are bound by the Code of Ethics,” she continued, “to judge the cases that are assigned to us, unless we have an articulable basis for recusal.”

Second, she said, the case might bring light to the fact that judges cannot decline to decide a case.

“We can’t just say, ‘This really belongs in the Supreme Court,’” she said. “The circuit court has the obligation to start it and lead it to a decision that’s appealable by one side or the other.”

While 2011 will probably be remembered as the year of the Ozanne case, Sumi also handled a full criminal case docket that year, while transitioning into the civil division and working through essentially a double caseload for much of the year.

That’s on top of her volunteer service as an associate dean of the Judicial College of Wisconsin, her work with the Criminal Jury Instructions Committee and other community efforts.

Her colleague, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Sarah O’Brien, said Sumi is a smart, hard-working judge, with a fun side.

“She treats people very respectfully in the courtroom and handles herself very nicely,” O’Brien said. “And when she takes the robe off, she’s hilarious.”

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