Wisconsin Public Radio

State Adds 12 New Circuit Court Branches

Bill signed by Gov. Evers makes first additions in a decade.

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - Mar 7th, 2020 12:18 pm


Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill this week that creates a dozen new circuit court branches in Wisconsin. The proposal adds another judge and court reporter for counties that demonstrate the need for additional resources. The move is the first time a new circuit branch has been added across the state in a decade.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, and Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, and allows the director of state courts to add branches to any county in need of one if a county resolution has been passed requesting another branch. The county also has to show it has the necessary infrastructure in place in the year the circuit court would begin hearing cases.

Petrowski said the proposal is part of the Legislature’s efforts to address needs for additional staffing throughout the judicial system.

“The volume of cases that are going through are so dramatic that people are being stalled off on being able to get into court and have their case heard,” said Petrowski. “You know they always say justice postponed is justice denied.”

He said the delay increases costs for counties, and harms victims waiting for a resolution and defendants who risk losing work or housing.

Four branches will be allocated this year and in the following two years. The first four additional circuit courts would begin operation in August 2021.

Judge Randy Koschnick, director of state courts, said he will consider several factors when allocating branches, including caseloads, regional needs and whether the county has a treatment court. Koschnick plans to announce which counties will be selected in the near future. He said the goal is to provide an efficient system with the highest quality of justice.

“Frequently, the emphasis is on criminal courts. Certainly, the opioid and meth crises have had a profound impact on our court systems,” said Koschnick. “But, the court serves families in family court cases and civil litigants in civil cases as well. I’m really primarily concerned with the whole system operating efficiently and fairly.”

The state currently has 249 judges, and the last circuit court branch was added in 2010 when a judicial assessment showed a need for 18 additional judges.

Sawyer County in northern Wisconsin has the highest caseload in the state, according to a 2018 report on judicial workload. Circuit Court Judge John Yackel is the county’s only judge. He said the county saw 403 felony cases opened last year at a time when the county’s district attorney’s office experienced a transition in staff available to prosecute cases.

Yackel said an “explosion” of drug-related cases has overwhelmed the court’s ability to handle all other matters.

“I just see the criminal justice system breaking down,” said Yackel.

Sawyer County has been exploring options for building another circuit court branch. Milwaukee-based firm Venture Architects studied options for a courtroom addition ranging in cost from roughly $4 million to $13 million. Yackel said officials are weighing whether to put the matter before voters through a referendum.

Without an additional branch, he said the county will continue to experience rising costs to incarcerate people waiting for their case to be heard.

“I think the public is going to realize that this is an important investment for our future to not only keep our communities safe, but to keep this a place where people want to keep coming back to for their vacations and to keep it a gem in the Northwoods,” he said.

Yackel hopes the county will have the infrastructure in place for another circuit court branch before May 2023.

All three praised the bipartisan cooperation to address needs among counties within the judicial system.

“It’s a great example of all three branches of government in Wisconsin working together to do what’s best for the people of the state of Wisconsin,” said Koschnick.

Koschnick said the law takes effect Saturday.

Listen to the WPR report here.

A Dozen New Circuit Court Branches Will Be Added Statewide was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

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