Justice could come faster in Shawano County

Two judges have largest caseloads among all Wisconsin Circuit Court justices
Kevin Passon

The wheels of justice turn slow, but Shawano County officials are hoping to see an increase in that speed with a few proactive steps.

Ethan Schmidt, Shawano County clerk of courts, told members of the Shawano County Public Safety Committee on Feb. 7 that having a third prosecutor in the district attorney’s office is helping to make a dent in the caseload. Eventually, having a fourth prosecutor will contribute even more.

“January was a busy month as far as cases being filed,” he said. “Not only did we have three jury trials, all three of them were two-day trials, so when we get that voucher report, probably in March or April, don’t be shocked at the high jury fees and expenses that we paid out.”

In December, the county paid nearly $21,400 for juror expenses, juror fees, witness fees, expert witness fees, witness expenses, psychological services, and testing and evaluations.

In January, the trials held were two for sexual assault crimes and one operating while intoxicated.

“We were able to get a lot of cases resolved, either jury trial or plea and sentencing,” Schmidt said.

February looks just as busy.

“We have roughly 20 jury trials scheduled, and going out into the future, we have 181 cases currently set on the jury trial calendar,” He said. “Not all of them hold, but with the DA’s office being a little bit more fully staffed, I would expect that the adjournment requests will go down, and that we’ll either have jury trials or plea and sentencing.”

Schmidt said that in the past few months, about 60% of jury trials were being settled with the other 40% getting adjourned, mostly at the request of the defendants.

But, he predicted the number of adjourned trials will decrease.

“The judges are really starting to buckle down,” Schmidt said. “If the case has been set for trial — it’s usually at a minimum three to six months when they request the jury trial that the jury trail happens — they’re wanting to keep that going. They don’t want to push it out.

“A couple times, too, they’ll get the day before, it’s settled out, put it on a plea and sentencing date 30 days out. Then, you get to that plea and sentencing, and it’s not resolved, and it’s back on the jury trial calendar.

“The only way that they’re taking the jury trial off the calendar is if you plead out the morning of your jury trial.”

Schmidt also said that when an office manager is hired for the DA’s office, the process may speed up even more.

Circuit courts have original jurisdiction in all civil and criminal matters within the state, including probate, juvenile and traffic matters, as well as civil and criminal jury trials.

The circuit courts are divided into branches with at least one branch in every county, with the exception of six counties that are paired off and share judges. The paired counties are Buffalo and Pepin, Florence and Forest, and Shawano and Menominee. The first two pairs are each staffed by a single judge who travels between the courthouses; Menominee County is a federal reservation and both judges for this circuit are located in Shawano.

Judge Katherine Sloma and Judge William Kussel Jr. preside over the local courts — and the high caseloads that go with them. Schmidt said Shawano County should have more judges.

“We’re on the high end of a three-judge county and even caseload-wise, the low end of a four-judge county,” he said. “Back in August, the state … keeps track of caseloads, and both the judges in Shawano County were number three and number four in the state as far as caseloads. Starting Aug. 1, the number one and number two judges that had the highest caseload, their counties got an extra judge, so that means our judges are now number one and number two for highest caseloads in the state.”

One final step that can help speed up the judicial process is the use of an expanded digital audio recording (DAR) system. The DAR came into use in 2019 due to a shortage of court stenographers.

The system is only set up in the courtrooms; however, Schmidt said wiring for an expanded DAR system was expected to be installed in the County Board Room as well.

When a judge from another county presides over court in Shawano County, the local judge is bumped out of his or her courtroom.

“When we bump our judges out of their courtroom, they’re not able to hold court unless we find a stenographer for them,” Schmidt said.

Having the expanded DAR system will mean the local judge can continue to hold court and keep cases moving through the judicial system.