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Walker proposes eliminating Judicial Council (UPDATE)


Gov. Scott Walker wants to eliminate the 64-year-old Judicial Council, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

The state Legislature created the Wisconsin Judicial Council in 1951 as an independent judicial branch agency. The 21-member body is responsible for studying and making recommendations relating to court practices, procedures and administration of state courts.

April Southwick, staff attorney for the council, would not comment on Walker’s proposal. She did say, however, that the Judicial Council drafted the state’s civil procedure, appellate procedure and rules of evidence, and that the council’s primary function is to update and amend them.

The council in 2014 put forth a 350-page bill to rewrite the state’s criminal code, but it stalled after two public hearings. The code has not been updated since 1969. Council member and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, has said he intended to introduce it again this year. Ott could not be reached for comment.

Council Chairman Thomas Bertz did not immediately return a call for comment.

According to an emailed statement attributed to the governor’s press secretary, Laurel Patrick, “This proposal is aimed at streamlining court operations.”

The council’s next meeting is Feb. 20. It had asked for a $96,900 increase in its budget for the 2015-17 biennial budget, according to the agency’s budget request from September. But Walker’s proposed budget instead recommends eliminating the group.

Walker also proposed major changes for the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, a 14-member body created in 1978 to, independent of the state Supreme Court, oversee all state judges, reserve and municipal judges, and, later, court commissioners. The governor’s proposal would transfer control of the commission, and its budget, back to the Supreme Court, as things operated prior to the 1978 change.

The Judicial Commission’s nine attorney members currently are appointed by the state Supreme Court and the governor appoints its 5 nonlawyer members. Members may serve up to two consecutive three-year terms.

All 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., have similar groups that oversee judicial conduct.

The commission’s Executive Director Jeremiah Van Hecke did not immediately return a call for comment.

Under Wisconsin law, justices and judges are subject to discipline or removal for misconduct or permanent disability. The procedure by which justices and judges may be disciplined or removed for misconduct or permanent disability begins with an investigation by the Judicial Commission, followed by a hearing. The Supreme Court makes the final determination regarding the discipline or removal of a justice or judge.

In March 2012, for example, the Judicial Commission alleged Justice David Prosser violated judicial conduct codes in 2011 when he allegedly wrapped his hands around Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s neck during a heated argument in her chambers in front of three other justices. Prosser was cleared of any criminal wrong-doing from the incident.

State Justice Annette Zeigler said she had not yet seen the budget proposal, but that the court was going to have to set priorities soon enough.

“As the process unfolds and we know more about the budget, I think it’s going to be important for the court to meet and set its priorities and make some determinations,” she said. “But right now it’s fairly premature, as I understand it.”

About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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