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Legal Action director renews push for civil appointments

A petition filed Monday with the state Supreme Court seeks to renew a push for civil appointments that previously died due to lack of financial support.

John Ebbott, executive director of Legal Action of Wisconsin, again is asking the justices to create a rule allowing judges to appoint counsel for indigent litigants. He filed a similar petition in 2010, which the justices shot down in January 2012 after estimates noted the program could cost the state as much as $56 million a year.

In his request, Ebbott said the move “remains as necessary now as in 2010.” There is a constitutional duty to provide civil appointments, he said, but the justices need to instruct trial courts to act on that duty.

The new petition also includes a request for the state Supreme Court to pay for a pilot program to study appointment of counsel in civil cases. Eighteen other judges and lawyers signed the petition to express support for the measure.

When the justices previously discussed civil appointments, they endorsed a pilot project that was to be spearheaded by the state’s Access to Justice Commission and was going to take place in Jefferson County. However, the State Bar declined to allocate the $100,000 needed to run the program, and instead recommended it set aside $10,000 to research how such a pilot program would efficiently work.

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Ebbott – who was on the ATJ Commission but left in November – said he started the latest proposal in July. He said the new petition is built upon the work the ATJ Commission already did with the pilot program, as well as what was previously discussed.

“… The court can take what it wants from all the work and thought that went into the unfunded pilot project and build on that,” Ebbott said.

Securing financial support for the move could be a challenge. The state’s 2013-15 budget has no money allocated for civil legal services.

But that fight is one worth pursuing, supporters of the measure say. Jefferson County Circuit Judge William Hue, who signed Ebbott’s petition and was involved in creating the first pilot program proposal, said he has seen “lot of disproportionality in terms of power in family and civil cases.”

Often it’s the people that can’t afford an attorney that need one most, he said.

Hue said he was disappointed when the bar declined to pay for the previous pilot program proposal. The pilot was ready to go, he said, as there were enough cases and the attorneys he asked said they were willing to take cases at a reduced rate.

“I think somebody could make a living at it,” Hue said.

Counties may have to pay for appointed lawyers if the proposal earns approval. He said counties are able to find money for other projects, but never lawyers for the poor.

“The courts aren’t the county treasurer,” Ebbott said. “The courts are supposed to do justice.”

The petition was discussed by the ATJ Commission earlier this month but the members have not voted on whether to support it. Commission President Gregg Moore said he expected to take the matter up again at its Nov. 21 meeting.

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