Republican state legislators have introduced a bill that would randomize the court in cases where the legislature is a party. The proposal would apply whether the Legislature is a plaintiff or defendant in the case. And it would severely limit the number of cases Dane County court currently hears involving the legislature.
Dane County judges frequently handle such cases by virtue of being the location of Wisconsin’s state government. The state G-O-P argues that these seventeen judges – some appointed by former Governor Scott Walker – cannot be trusted to maintain their objectivity.
Under the proposal, the county clerk of courts would notify the state supreme court each time an action is filed against or on behalf of the Legislature.
Then, the state supreme court would randomly select a court for that case to be heard.
Currently, the plaintiff has the power to select the venue for cases in which the sole defendant is the state government. This Republican-led bill was signed into law in 2011, when – before – Dane County was the default.
The bill in question was proposed by Representative David Steffen, a Republican from Howard, and Senator Jesse James, a Republican from Altoona. Both were unavailable for comment.
Recently, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has pointed to rulings from several Dane County Circuit Court judges as attempts to “make [Republican lawmakers] look bad.” However, Judges Mario White, Valerie Bailey-Rihn, and Rhonda Lanford have all recently ruled against liberal interests.
Critics of the bill say the proposal is flawed, from inception to its execution if passed.
Matt Rothschild is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, currently the only organization registered on the bill in opposition. He says he’s skeptical about the bill’s motives.
“It’s a transparent ploy by the Republicans to try to find more favorable judges than those in Dane County when they’re doing something wrong or doing something illegal or when their policies are being challenged in court.”
Logistics of the proposal could be challenging. For example, a case involving the Legislature could require attorneys to drive across the state, jacking up travel costs in the process.
The proposal also does not outline how the selection process would be randomized. According to Rothschild, this lack of clarity is a concern: “Well, vagueness in any bill is bad policy-making and will lead to more litigation; in any event, [it will] just cost us all more money so I wish they would define their terms a little bit better.”
The bill was introduced to the state Assembly last Friday, and to the state Senate two weeks ago. Both have been referred to committee, where a scheduled public hearing would be the next step.