Dec. 4, 2023 – The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Board of Governors heard a report on Dec. 1 on a
Rules Petition 23-05, which would provide for expedited review of criminal pre-trial competency rulings. The rules petition was filed by the Wisconsin Judicial Council.

Wis. Stat. section 971.14 sets the process for determining whether a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial.

According to the memo filed in support of the rules petition by the Judicial Council, neither section 971.14 nor
chapter 809 (appellate procedures) provide any guidelines for how to handle appeals from a determination made under section 971.14.

Consequently, circuit courts have taken different approaches to appeals of competency determinations, causing appeals to drag on and bump up or go past the deadline that state law sets for restoring a criminal defendant to competency.

The rules petition would:

  • require that all appeals of determinations under section 971.14 be expedited and handled by a single judge;
  • use the standard 14-day deadline to file notice of an appeal for appeals of a determination under section 971.14; and
  • allow use of the standard no-merit report procedure under
    section 809.32 for appeals of determinations under section 971.14.

Speaking on behalf of the Judicial Council, Wisconsin Court of Appeals District III Judge Thomas Hurz said the rules petition represented a compromise by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the State Public Defender.

“Everybody recognized that compromise in this area can improve the administration of justice and fairness and constitutional rights being protected, and we came up with, I think, a very solid rule,” Hruz said.

‘Every State Has This Problem’

In his report, State Bar President Dean Dietrich said he continues to focus on addressing legal deserts in the rural parts of the state.

Dietrich said he’s met with the presidents and presidents-elect of two surrounding state bar associations and has made arrangements for meetings with those representatives from the other two surrounding state bar associations to discuss the problem.

“Every state has this problem,” Dietrich said.

But Dietrich said there’s only so much the State Bar can do to address it.

“We can’t go around and fund high-speed internet through the state,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich said that he meets via Zoom with local bar presidents every other month to discuss ideas for recruiting attorneys to rural parts of the state. He added that he plans to begin holding the meetings every month.

And, as he has in the past, Dietrich mentioned an Illinois State Bar Association program that pays young attorneys $5,000 to go to a rural law firm and another $5,000 if they stay for one year.

“That’s the gold standard,” Dietrich said. “That’s what we’ve got to start shooting for.”

Melodie Wiseman, Nonresident Lawyers Division representative, said she applauded the State Bar’s efforts to address the problem of legal deserts but said it was time for those efforts to evolve.

Specifically, Wisemen mentioned using technology to allow rural law students to attend law school without leaving their communities.

“We need to think about people who never want to leave their communities and find a way to educate them,” Wiseman said.

Wiseman said the American Bar Association has recognized online and hybrid programs for legal education.

“In my view, Wisconsin needs to look to that to solve our problems with access to justice in rural areas,” Wiseman said. “We need to be pushing our law schools or a different law school to help us educate people in place.”

Other Business

The Board took no action but also heard reports from President-elect Jane Bucher and Past President Margaret Hickey, as well as Executive Director Larry Martin, Assistant Executive Director and Chief Financial Officer Paul Marshall, and the government relations team.

The board also approved by consent amendments to the bylaws of the Elder Law & Special Needs Section and elected Marisol González Castillo to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Planning and Policy Advisory Committee (PPAC).

The election of González Castillo, which came at the recommendation of President Dietrich, was necessitated by Andrew Chevrez’s resignation from the PPAC.

Justice Protasiewicz: Court Must Maintain Public’s Confidence

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz addressed the State Bar’s Board of Governors at its Dec. 1 meeting. In line with tradition, State Bar Executive Director Larry J. Martin invites every newly elected justice to address the board.

Justice Protasiewicz was elected to the Supreme Court in April. Prior to her election to the high court, Protasiewicz had served for nine years as a circuit court judge in Milwaukee County.

More Than Just a Title

Justice Protasiewicz began by thanking the Board of Governors members for the important work they do for attorneys and the statewide community.

“Being a member of the bar is about more than just being able to say you’re a lawyer,” Protasiewicz said. “Being a member of the bar means that the lawyer has support and training and a group that’s always looking out for our professional well-being … it means we have advocates fighting for things like more funding in the criminal justice system.”

Justice Protasiewicz said it was vital that the Supreme Court maintain the public’s confidence. One way to do that, she said, was to engage members of the public in the judicial system.

Protasiewicz said that the campaign taught her that “the people of Wisconsin really care who is on the Supreme Court, and they really care about what we’re up to.”

But divisive judicial campaigns, Justice Protasiewicz said, too often leave voters with the impression that judges are ideologues.

“We are not,” Protasiewicz said. “Every single one of us takes an oath to follow the law.”

“Our judicial system depends upon the trust and support of the public,” Justice Protasiewicz said. “Without public confidence, the court may cease to uphold it’s constitutional role.”

Public Education Important

Protasiewicz told board members it was important that the court educate the public about its work.

The court took a big step in that direction, Justice Protasiewicz said, by reopening the court’s administrative conferences to the public, both in-person and online on Wisconsin Eye.

“The fact that anyone, anywhere, can log in and see what the court is up to is really powerful, isn’t it?” Protasiewicz said.

Justice Protasiewicz asked board members to spread the word in their districts about opportunities for members of the public to serve on committees that the Supreme Court uses to help with judicial administration.

“It’s something that is a tremendous benefit to the courts but hopefully to the community as well,” Protasiewicz said. “People in your communities can help shape the operation of our courts.”

Justice Protasiewicz closed by saying that she looked forward to working with the board “to make the law work for everyone in our state.”