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Judicial council making bid for office, staff attorney

The Judicial Council on Friday approved a biennial budget request that asks the governor and state Legislature for money to hire a staff attorney, pay for office space and equipment and reimburse its members for travel expenses.

The council is a 21-member body of judges, lawmakers, lawyers and other stakeholders in the legal system. It studies and recommends changes in court system procedures and policies to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Legislature.

The council lost its staff attorney and budget in the last biennial budget after approving a raise for its then-staff attorney April Southwick.

While Walker had kept lawmakers’ recommendation that the council remain in state statutes, he struck language in the budget that would have let the Wisconsin Supreme Court set up and pay for the body after the court notified the state DOA that it would not be paying for the council’s future operations.

The council on Friday morning raced to put together a proposed budget for 2019-21 that would help them get back what they lost last session — and was a request all members agreed on.

Budget requests for state agencies had been due on Monday but the council and others were given an extension until Friday, said council member Bill Gleisner. About two weeks earlier, he’d been contacted by the state Department of Administration officials about submitting a proposed budget.

Gleisner and DOA Budget Director Colleen Holtan put together a draft budget request presented to the council at Friday’s meeting. Holtan attended part of the meeting by phone, fielding questions from council member about the budget request.

The draft request asked for $200,700 in general purpose revenue to hire a full-time staff attorney and reimburse members for expenditures such as mileage for coming to Madison for committee and council meetings. It also included a request that a gifts and grants appropriation be created so that the council could accept money from donors such as Marquette University Law School, the University of Wisconsin Law School and the State Bar of Wisconsin Foundation. That money would then be earmarked for use by the council.

Council member Diane Fremgen, the Director of State Court’s representative on the council, said the justices are opposed only to footing the council’s bill and not opposed to its existence.

Several members opposed the request to create a gifts and grants appropriation.

Council member Eugene Gasiorkiewicz, a judge in Racine County, said requesting such an appropriation would not only call into question the council’s independence but also pose an ethical problem for judges on council.

“Judges can’t go fishing,” he said. “That’s against the judicial code of ethics.”

Council member Ben Pliskie said he was opposed to asking for such an appropriation because the council is supposed to exist separately from all three branches of the government.

“If you want to put a target on our back, I think this is it,” he said. “What if the trial lawyers association gives us a bunch of money? … That could be enough to take us off life support so to speak.”

The council eventually decided to eliminate the request for a gift and grants appropriation. It also added a one-time request in the first year of the biennium for $9,000 to cover the cost of advertising for the staff attorney position and buying a desk, chair, computer and other supplies needed for the new hire’s office.

Council member andRepublican state Sen. Van Wanggaard said it was nonsensical to hire someone but not give that person an office.

“What are we going to do,” he said, “give them a burner (cell phone)?”

The budget request is just one step in the budget process. Walker will present his own budget next year, and then the process will move on to the state Legislature.

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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