Michael Horne

Judicial Rotation Explained By An Insider

Judges face an annual court house shuffle on August 1.

By - Aug 18th, 2023 01:57 pm
Milwaukee County Courthouse

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene

The wheels of justice turn slowly — governed by rules, regulations, calendars and dockets brimming with orders to be followed at a time certain. In the Wisconsin Court System, Aug. 1 is indeed an august occasion, as it marks the beginning of the Judicial New Year.

The changes started at the top, in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where the liberals gained a majority for the first time in 15 years with the elevation of Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz to the seven-member bench. Their first order of business was to fire the court administrator. The second was to limit the powers of Chief Justice Annette Ziegler, prompting outrage among conservatives. It is safe to say that not in recent memory has the installation of a new justice prompted so much consternation and publicity.

Judicial Rotation in Milwaukee County

While the wheels grind exceedingly fine, their gears spin down to the state’s 10 judicial districts where an annual rotation is determined by their chief judges, subject to Supreme Court approval. Milwaukee County, with 47 judges, and 150,000 new cases filed annually, is by far the state’s largest and busiest circuit. It is the only county in Judicial District I, whereas the other nine districts are multi-county. Local Rule 146, “Rotation of Judicial Assignments,” sets forth the process. In general, judges may spend no more than four years of their six-year term in a single division before rotating to a new one, and assignment preferences are considered on the basis of seniority. About a quarter to a third of all judges rotate annually. The process is not always simple, old justices retire, new ones are elected and still others, like Protasiewicz and her colleague Pedro Colon, move on to higher courts, she elected to the Supreme Court, and he, appointed on June 20 to fill a vacancy on the Court of Appeals.

Protasiewicz had been in Family Court, her place was taken by Judge T. Christopher Dee, who had been in Misdemeanor Court. Colon, then in the Civil Division, was replaced by Glenn Yamahiro.

New Assignments

Transfers Within Felony Courts

Milwaukee County has 17 Felony Court judges, making it the largest of the divisions. Furthermore, there are intra-divisional specialty courts including Gun, Homicide, High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, Drug, Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Drug Treatment areas. Rotations within the Felony Division:

Other Moves

New Faces

In addition to Rafeet August, two new appointees to the bench were assigned to Misdemeanor Court:

An Insider’s View of the Process

Intrigued by the mechanism of judicial rotation, I contacted Mary Triggiano, director of Marquette University Law School’s Andrew Center for Restorative Justice for her insights.

Triggiano served as a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge beginning in 2004. In February 2020 she was appointed as the Chief Judge for the county, and during her tenure she was responsible for compiling the rotation list, with its nuances and complications — like a judge leaving before the end of her term, as she did in November 2022 when she was named to her new position. (She was succeeded as Chief Judge by Carl Ashley, who compiled the current list.)

“A lot is based on seniority,” she told me in a video interview from her office at the university. “Those judges in their third or fourth year can give the Chief Judge a list of where they want to go — which division. The chief judge pays attention to the seniority. Quite often they get their first choice, or second. The chief judge would look at who would be eligible in August, as we might have to plug a hole. There are always unexpected issues.”

The theory behind judicial rotation, as she sees it, is that “every judge should learn a different aspect of the law. Many want to try different practice areas.”

Judges can do pre-planning for future assignments, she adds. “Judges have to earn 60 credits of continuing education credits every six years. So you can get credits for what you might rotate to.”

There are other concerns. “You try to not have a judge spend too much time in sexual assault [court],” she says, noting that testimony can be traumatic for the judges and their staff, who rotate with them.

New judges are usually assigned to Children’s Court or Misdemeanor Court, where they can learn the ropes. “But you want to make sure you have a mixture of senior judges available” to help with the learning curve. Judges new to their assignment are encouraged to call their predecessors for advice on court-related matters.

As for her experiences as Chief Judge responsible for rotation, she said “the process can be sometimes a puzzle. There are a lot of moving pieces.”

Fortunately, there is a “catch-all” provision in the rules. “The Chief Judge can rotate them at their discretion. For the good of the system we can move somebody out of sequence.”

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One thought on “Judicial Rotation Explained By An Insider”

  1. LittleFrog17 says:

    It would be interesting to compare the judicial turnover in past years to 2023. In 2023 we’ve had at least 7 judges that left or will leave the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. This creates at least 14 additional reassignments (more, because some courts were on 6-week interim judges) in addition to the mass August 1 rotation. Along with the court reporter shortage, it’s been a really rough year for getting a civil case heard promptly.

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