By Danielle Kaeding
A dozen counties in Wisconsin would be able add another circuit court branch under a bill introduced by Republican state lawmakers. The proposal seeks to add another judge and court reporter for counties with the heaviest workloads.
The measure introduced by Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, would add positions in Adams, Calumet, Clark, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson, Langlade, Manitowoc, Marathon, Sawyer, Vilas and Waushara counties.
"Justice delayed is sometimes justice denied," Jacque said. "(The bill) helps victims find closure. It helps get defendants into treatment. It helps judges to be able to participate in treatment courts."
Jacque said the bill was requested by the chief judges of Wisconsin circuit court districts. The state, which currently has 249 judges, last approved additional circuit court branches in 2007 after a judicial assessment showed a need for 18 new judges.
Sawyer County in northern Wisconsin has the highest workload ranking per judicial official in the state, according to the most recent weighted caseload report released last year. Circuit Court Judge John Yackel is the county’s only judge. He said the court system has been dealing with an increasing number of felony cases associated with drug abuse.
The number of felony complaints filed in Sawyer County grew from 289 in 2016 to 404 in 2018, according to state caseload summaries. He said that compares to 454 felony complaints filed last year in nearby Barron County, which has three judges and almost three times the population.
"It is putting a great amount of stress on the jail by not getting these cases processed as quickly," Yackel said. "If somebody is going to get released, they’re sitting in there longer than they need to or if somebody is going to the prison system, they’re sitting over in our county jail at county taxpayer expense for a much longer period of time."
Yackel said the heavy criminal caseload has made it more difficult to address other issues, such as divorce and small claims cases. Adams County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Wood said he’s experiencing similar challenges.
"Some cases naturally require more attention and that means that other cases that are still important to those involved get less time and attention than they deserve," said Wood. "The problem is magnified here in Adams County because I’m the only judge, and I have to balance, all the time, the competing obligations."
Wisconsin’s circuit courts are funded through a combination of state and county money. A fiscal estimate of the legislation hasn’t yet been provided. However, counties are planning to share in the cost of adding more judges.
The Adams County Board is set to take up a resolution this week that would authorize $17.2 million in bonding to renovate and expand the county courthouse and construct a new administration building. Wood said the county currently doesn’t have the space to accommodate another circuit court branch.
"I’m hopeful the county board will approve that expansion project," said Wood.
Sawyer County has also authorized a $19,500 study with the Milwaukee-based firm Venture Architects to examine how the county could accommodate another circuit court branch, according to Sawyer County Administrator Tom Hoff.
"One of the requirements for a circuit court branch is to have a court room with a jury box and a jury room," he said. "There are certain requirements in order to have that second branch and so we would need that additional court room."
Marathon County also plans to modify use of its existing courtrooms and conduct renovations within its courthouse to accommodate an additional circuit court branch, said Deputy Administrator Lance Leonhard. Leonhard said the county, which currently has five judges, is among the top five counties in the state with the highest workload per judicial official.
"When it’s overburdened, cases don’t move as promptly as we would like them to do or our judges would like them to move through the system," Leonhard said. "Really importantly, they don’t have the necessary time to devote to consider the important decisions they need to make."
There were 1,434 felony complaints filed in Marathon County last year, according to state data. If passed, the bill would provide another judge and court reporter for the 12 counties by next summer.
Editor's note: Olivia Shalaby contributed reporting to this story.