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Waushara County court officials combat conflicts

Waushara County court officials combat conflicts

Trees shade the front of the Waushara County Courthouse in Wautoma. One judge presides over the court in central Wisconsin. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

Conflicts of interest are common occurrences at the Waushara County Courthouse.

With only one judge, and four court commissioners who also work as private attorneys in the area, court officials have to carefully consider what cases they can take.

“It works if everyone follows the rules strictly — which we do,” said Circuit Judge Guy Dutcher. “But you have to have people that serve in quasi-judicial roles when you have a limited number of attorneys and only one judge.”

The four court commissioners work part-time, juggling their own case loads and cases for the county.

“We only have four law firms in the city,” Clerk of Courts Melissa Zamzow said. “So it’s a pretty close-knit group and there is a lot of familiarity in the community.”

Clerk of Courts Melissa Zamzow stands in a courtroom at the Waushara County Courthouse.

When any of the four commissioners have cases in front of Dutcher, he has to recuse himself. He also has to avoid using them as a legal sounding board, he said.

The situation can be isolating, he said, because he has to avoid talking shop while out in the community, as well.

“I see people daily that are involved in ongoing situations that I’m handling,” said Dutcher, who has been on the circuit court bench for six years. “An average trip to the grocery store is three or four people that are involved in something I just resolved or something that is pending.”

Family Court Commissioner Marc Bickford talks about his dual roles at the courthouse.

Further complicating matters: Dutcher’s father, Howard Dutcher, is a Wautoma attorney, as well. That results in about a dozen cases a year from which the judge has to recuse himself, he said.

In 2011, Waushara County assigned 41 cases to judges in surrounding counties, compared to just five that Dutcher added from other counties to his calendar.

It’s not always easy, but juggling the potential for conflicts of interest is “a logistical necessity” with the county’s limited financial resources, Dutcher said.

But the close ties inevitably create procedural problems for Dutcher and his commissioners.

Since taking the part-time county job in 2005, Family Court Commissioner Marc Bickford, a municipal and real estate attorney with Kubasta, Rathjen, Bickford & Lorenson LLP, Wautoma, said his role has expanded from doing mostly temporary orders to now handling some small claims and stipulated divorces.

“A lot of things will get resolved, but they still take up my calendar,” he said. “So you always weigh how much time you put into it.”

He acknowledged that his judicial capabilities are limited by his obligations to private practice.

“I don’t want to have to get to a point where my other clients go, ‘Hey, I need to see Marc,’ and someone in the office says, ‘Oops, he’s in court,’” Bickford said. “They will only take ‘He’s in court,’ so many times before they get frustrated.”

Both he and Dutcher said there isn’t county money available to make a commissioner position full-time, however, so they make do with the resources and people available.

The time and effort required to keep things moving can be exhausting, though. Dutcher said he puts in 55-hour weeks and schedules cases most days from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

“I like what I do, but I feel it,” he said. “It’s like the old expression: ’There are only so many hits in a running back.’ And I feel the magnitude of what I am doing and decisions take their toll.”

Last year, Waushara County disposed of 5,895 cases. According to the National Center of State Courts, that volume is equivalent to work typically done by 1.6 judges.

Dutcher said he has tried to reduce the strain by encouraging attorneys, especially in civil cases, to resolve complex disputes short of trial, in order to save calendar time.

“I don’t schedule trial on a higher level civil case,” he said. “I have an understanding with attorneys that, ’Look the arrangement we have is: I’m not going to give you a trial date until you tell me that you have to have one.’”

The tactic has worked, Dutcher said, because it still allows attorneys to get complex cases to trial, when needed, but also provides flexibility to avoid the time and cost of unnecessary litigation.

“Attorneys know that they’ve got to do all they can to resolve a matter, but if they can’t they will bring it back,” he said.

“That tends to move things along.”

Dutcher said that while he keeps in contact with a handful of judges in other counties for advice and to keep up on judicial chatter, it’s not the same as being able to bend the ear of someone in his own county. It’s a necessary challenge of keeping potential conflicts to a minimum, however.

“I didn’t realize how isolating it would be,” Dutcher said. “But to follow the rules it has to be.”

The basics

Waushara County Courthouse
209 S. Saint Marie St.
Wautoma, WI 54982
Clerk of Courts office hours:
8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Monday through Friday

People to know

Clerk of Court
Melissa Zamzow

Circuit Court Branch 1
Judge Guy Dutcher

Family Court Commissioner
Marc Bickford

Court Commissioner
Robyn Blader

Court Commissioner
Richard Rathjen

Court Commissioner
Joan Olson

District Attorney
Scott Blader

State Public Defender
Steve Smits

Corporation Counsel
Ruth Zouski

David Peterson


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