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Court: Victims board can’t veto or sanction judges (UPDATE)

The state Supreme Court says a board that investigates violations of crime victims’ rights can’t take any action against judges.

The case stems from a dispute between Eau Claire County Circuit Court Judge William Gabler and the Crime Victims Rights Board over Gabler’s decision to delay the sentencing of a man accused of assaulting two girls. Gabler had chosen to hold off until the jury had issued a verdict for all the charges filed against the suspect, Leigh Beebe.

The Crime Victims Rights Board later declared that the delay had violated the right of one of the victims to a speedy trial. Gabler responded to that decision in 2013 by filing a petition for review.

Eau Claire County Circuit Court Judge James Duvall sided with Gabler two years later, prompting the board to file its own appeal. Gabler then sought to take the dispute straight to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which agreed in October to take up the case.

In a 5-1 decision Tuesday written by Justice Rebecca Bradley, the justices affirmed Duvall and declared the board’s report and recommendation void; Justice Ann Walsh Bradley did not participate in the decision.

The majority found that the Legislature had violated the Constitution and “threatened judicial independence” by empowering the board to review and sanction Gabler. Justice Shirley Abrahamson dissented in part and concurred in part, saying the court never should have reached the constitutional question and instead should have examined the language giving the board its powers.

Rebecca Bradley wrote that only the state Supreme Court has the authority to sanction a judge or judicial officer under the state Constitution, and that the board’s veto power infringes on the state judiciary’s job to interpret and apply the law.

“Permitting an executive agency to review judges’ official actions for compliance with the victims’ rights laws would upend the constitutional structure of separated powers, which allocates independent judicial power to the courts,” she wrote.

Rebecca Bradley argued that allowing the board to review and sanction judges would give judges an incentive to make decisions that favor the executive branch.

However, she cautioned that the court’s decision does not restrict criticism of judges – it only places limits on formal disciplinary measures taken against judges by the legislative and executive branches.

“For all of the weight we assign to preserving the judiciary’s independence from interference by the legislative and executive branches, we also recognize that public speech criticizing judges implicates different constitutional interests,” she wrote.

Bradley ended the opinion by writing that the court respects the rights of crime victims and that there are various procedures they may use within the court system to assert their rights.

Like many of the justices on the court, Bradley had been a sharp critic of the board during oral arguments in February.

In particular, she pressed Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin, who appeared on the board’s behalf, on whether the board had the authority to sanction her and her fellow justices and on whether judges could remain independent if the Legislature and executive branch suddenly got the ability to“collude to punish a judge.”

About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

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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