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Justices give preliminary green light to changes to evidence, reciprocity rules

The Wisconsin Supreme Court held its first public hearings of the term on Monday and, despite some tension among the justices, approved behind closed doors two rule-change proposals that were the main topics of the agenda.

Of the two proposals, first up was the Judicial Council’s second attempt to update certain state rules of evidence. The 21-member body studies and proposes changes to the state court system’s rules and procedures.

The council’s proposal calls for modifying certain rules including one that governs when past criminal convictions can be introduced to impeach a witness, one relating to the impeachment of witnesses using “specific acts” and another involving the admissibility of writings and recorded statements.

A member of the council, Tom Shriner, presented the petition to the court. The council’s former staff attorney, April Southwick, had been scheduled to make a presentation alongside Shriner, but was taken off the list of presenters ahead of the hearing.

Although the justices had heard the petition once before and not shown signs that it was something likely to generate a lot of controversy, tensions spiked early during the hearing. Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Chief Justice Pat Roggensack repeatedly interrupted and talked over each other as Abrahamson tried to talk about the Judicial Council’s budget and staffing shortfalls.

Roggensack upbraided Abrahamson for not sticking to the subject at hand.

“This is not a public forum for your gripes, Shirley Abrahamson,” Roggensack said.

Although the state Legislature had voted against Walker’s proposal to eliminate a statute requiring the Judicial Council to exist, the Supreme Court issued an order last month stating that it would stop paying for the council’s staff and operations as soon as the budget was signed. Walker signed the budget last week.

Ahead of Monday’s hearing, Shriner said the council’s next meeting has not yet been scheduled. He said that although he cannot speak for the full council, he does know that members of the executive committee intend for the council to meet.

The other proposal the justices heard testimony on involved a proposal, from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, that would allow attorneys who have a license in good standing in another state and who can present proof of practice with a federally recognized Indian tribe to be waived from having to take the Wisconsin bar exam. Over the summer, the tribe agreed upon revised language for its proposal, which was drafted by the Board of Bar Examiners with advice from stakeholders in the tribal justice system.

The Stockbridge-Munsee’s general counsel, Dennis Puzz, as well as BBE director Jacquelynn Rothstein, presented the proposal to the justices. Nicole Homer, a member of the Wisconsin State Bar’s Indian Law Section, testified in favor of the proposal.

The tribe’s prosecutor, Laura Vedder, was present but did not testify. It was Vedder’s troubles obtaining a license in Wisconsin despite her many years of practicing law for a previous tribe and maintaining her license in Minnesota that gave the tribe’s petition its impetus. Vedder was eventually able to obtain licensing in Wisconsin, but only after filing an appeal to the BBE.

Monday’s public hearings were the first the court has held since it voted last term to do away with the open-rules conferences that usually followed its public hearings. In its open conferences, the justices would debate the proposals that were the subject of the hearing and take votes. Those votes and deliberations are now closed to the public.

Reached Tuesday, Supreme Court Commissioner Julie Rich said she was authorized to say that the that the justices, in closed conference, had approved the Judicial Council’s proposal and that an order would be forthcoming. As for the Stockbridge-Munsee’s petition, the justices approved of the ideas behind the proposal but would be making some slight changes to the language, Rich said. Both orders should be issued in the next week or so, she said.

About Erika Strebel,

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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