Nov. 1, 2023 – Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Ziegler used her third State of the Judiciary address on Nov. 1 to highlight ongoing concerns with judicial security and statewide mental health.

For the second straight year, Ziegler began her address, which took place at the 2023 Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin Judicial Conference, by discussing the ongoing threat to judicial security.

In last year’s address, Chief Justice Ziegler used the murder of Juneau County Circuit Court Judge John Roemer, who was gunned down in his home in June 2022, as the jumping off point for her discussion of security.

This year, she referenced a Maryland jurist, Washington County Circuit Court Judge Andrew Wilkinson, who was shot and killed in his driveway on Oct. 19.

Security Is Key to Judicial Independence

Ziegler said that her vision for bolstering judicial security in Wisconsin includes the following:

  • training for judges and staff;
  • additional courthouse security for members of the public;
  • well-equipped security personnel;
  • new security measures; and
  • 24/7 internet surveillance.

“Security enhances our ability to adhere to the basic tent of judicial independence: that judges should not be intimidated, influenced, or threatened,” Chief Justice Ziegler said.

Ziegler said she worked hard during the last legislative session on a proposal to both boost the court system’s cybersecurity and expand the Supreme Court’s marshal’s office to provide security for the seven justices and bolster judicial security across Wisconsin.

The legislature provided funds for court system cybersecurity but declined to expand the marshal’s office, Chief Justice Ziegler said.

Ziegler added that she explored security options with the Wisconsin State Patrol and the Capitol Police, including the creation of a dignitary protection unit within one of those forces.

“I will not give up on further improving increased safety measures for the judiciary, and I will continue to strive to improve security for those in the entire judicial system,” Chief Justice Ziegler said.

‘We Can Do Better’

On mental health, Zieger said she envisions community-based mental health systems that offer dignified, respectful, and effective treatment.

“We need to find better methods to treat low-level offenders who otherwise cycle in and out of the court system, not making any strides or improvement,” Chief Justice Ziegler said.

Ziegler said her experience as a trial judge taught her that judges are usually ill-equipped to deal with the mental health issues that come before them.

Chief Justice Ziegler pointed out that representatives from Arizona and the City of Miami – two jurisdictions that have made strides in addressing mental health issues – presented at the Chief Justice’s Mental Health Summit in Madison in April.

“What we have learned, in part, is that states are successful when they individualize approaches to improve mental health systems,” Ziegler said.

She also mentioned that a sub-committee of the Supreme Court’s Planning and Policy Advisory Committee is considering convening a workgroup to consider changes to the state Alcohol, Drug Abuse, Developmental Disabilities and Mental Health Act.

“We in Wisconsin know that we can do much better treating those who suffer from mental illness in our communities,” Chief Justice Ziegler said.

Increasing Reliance on Digital Audio Recording

Ziegler said that an increased reliance on courtroom digital audio reporting (DAR) has made state courts more accessible and efficient.

The increasing reliance on DAR is necessitated by a rise in the number of stenographic court reporters who are nearing retirement age, Chief Justice Ziegler said. She added that the statewide pool of DAR reporters is now fully staffed.

The state court system relies on a blend of DAR reporters, who transcribe hearings remotely using audio recordings, and in-person stenographic court reporters to make the records of court proceedings.

“Solutions like these keep cases moving through the court system and prevent the cancellation of court proceedings,” Ziegler said.

“I encourage any judge who is having difficulty filling a personal appointment court reporter vacancy to consider participating in a statewide pool.”

Progress on Felony Backlog Continues

Chief Justice Ziegler also used her address to give an update on the felony case backlog that’s plagued the state court system since 2020.

Ziegler said that Ashland, Burnett, Columbia, Dane, Jefferson, Juneau, Marathon, Pepin, Pierce, Polk, Taylor, Vilas, and Washburn counties all decreased their felony backlogs by 20% or more from Oct.1, 2021 to Oct. 1, 2023.

She also said she assigned an additional reserve judge to Milwaukee County, a move that helped the county shrink its felony backlog by 4% over the same two-year period.

“We each have a role to play in addressing the ongoing backlog clearance,” Chief Justice Ziegler said.

“I trust we will all continue to do our part, individually and collectively, to ensure Wisconsin’s court system remains fair, accessible, independent, and effective.”