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Summer is no vacation at Sauk County Courthouse

The Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo is a hotbed of tourism-related cases each summer. (Photos by Kevin Harnack)

As a summer tourism hot spot in Wisconsin, Sauk County is synonymous with waterslides and campfires.

The county is home to three state parks and several major Wisconsin Dells’ attractions, such as Noah’s Ark Water Park and the Kalahari Resort.

But for the county judges, court commissioner and clerk of courts, Memorial Day to Labor Day is anything but a vacation.

On any given summer weekend, 10,000 vacationers descend on Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo, near the county courthouse. The seasonal surges make for busy days at the courthouse, said Branch 3 Judge Guy Reynolds.

“That amount of people makes it the biggest town in Sauk County for a three-day period,” he said. “So we’re going to see all the same problems any other city of 10,000 people will see.”

Branch 2 Judge James Evenson talks April 2 in his chambers at the courthouse.

While the severity of those seasonal problems tend to be relatively minor, such as underage drinking citations or speeding tickets, the volume tests the efficiency of court operations during the summer.

Case filings in Sauk County spike 33 percent during June, July and August, according to Sauk County Clerk of Courts Vicki Meister. Summer filings average in excess of 2,000 per month, compared to the rest of the year where monthly filings average about 1,500.

“We’re very touristy,” Meister said. “That is going to bring people to the county and we see the impact at the courts.”

With only three judges and one court commissioner, they have little choice but to adjust their scheduling strategies during high volume months, said Branch 2 Judge James Evenson.

That includes double or triple-booking calendars with trial dates, he said, and whittling down the number as cases are resolved.

“The biggest challenge is you don’t get the calendar time, especially during the summer,” Evenson said. “When I schedule jury trials, rarely do I schedule less than five or six in a day.”

Sauk County Clerk of Courts Vicki Meister displays a storage room with case files at the courthouse.

The timing usually works out, he said, because 90 percent of the cases never make it to trial. But Evenson said he still struggles to find time to thoroughly prepare in advance of the ones that do.

“It’s much better if I’ve had time to read all the briefing before going into court and decide when I’m out there,” Evenson said, “versus hearing the arguments, then coming back and reading the briefs later.”

Baraboo family lawyer Rebecca Oettinger, of Boardman & Clark LLP, said compared to other counties, getting a prompt court date can be a challenge in Sauk County during busy months.

“If I’m in a situation in Sauk County where I need to have a day or half-day for trial, my experience lately is that it is going to be five or six months out,” Oettinger said. “If you need a day, you better plan way ahead.”

The vast majority of criminal offenses, especially those filed during the summer, never make it to trial, however, and usually begin and end with Court Commissioner Leo Grill. Many are traffic cases that end in default judgments, he said, because vacationers are from out of town.

Court Commissioner Leo Grill talks about the increased seasonal case load while in his office at the Sauk County Courthouse.

“On a given Monday morning traffic court session in the summertime, I have maybe 1,000 cases on the docket,” he said. “Most of those folks don’t show up and if even 10 percent did, that would be a lot of people.”

The summer traffic filings are more than double what he sees in the off-season, Grill said, and when a matter is contested, it takes longer to resolve as a result.

Also contributing to the summer caseload: seasonal foreign employees hired by local resorts from countries such as Russia, Turkey, Poland and Bulgaria.

“A lot of people who work during the summer come from different countries,” Reynolds said, “so we’ll see a variety of driver’s licenses or a lack of them.”

The courts have a significant need for court interpreters to help in some of those cases, he said.

“I did a three-day civil trial in Polish and that was hard,” Reynolds said, “because the parties were both Polish, so they all could understand each other, but we couldn’t until we had the interpreter.

“They could have tried that case a lot faster had they had a Polish judge.”

Another judge on staff would help, Evenson said, regardless of the languages he or she speaks.

The last branch added in the county was in 1988, long before the Dells and Baraboo developed into the tourist hubs they are today. A 2006 Judicial Needs Assessment by the National Center for State Courts showed that Sauk County was 1.5 judges short of the necessary number to effectively handle annual caseloads.

“Certainly a fourth branch would help in many respects,” Evenson said, “We’ve always kept a spot here in the courthouse for that.”

But given the county’s economic realities, Evenson said he doesn’t expect a new judge in the near future, even though the tourism season is extending with more resorts staying open year round.

“Everything went to hell with the state budget a couple years ago,” he said, “So I don’t think it is in the cards for us anytime soon.”

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