Chief Judge Mary Triggiano reported that Milwaukee County Circuit Court is emerging from the pandemic, and the public and justice system participants can look forward to the future with optimism.
The misdemeanor court backlog is gone, and 475 jury trials have taken place since July 2020. Although “it was no cake walk,” the court’s commitment to public health and safety allowed the court to reopen more quickly than other courts around the state, she said.
Triggiano gave a state-of-the-court address at the Milwaukee Bar Association’s luncheon meeting on Wednesday, October 12.
“Sometimes things worked out” but other times the court “had to go back to the drawing board,” she said.
She called the pilot misdemeanor night court run by Judge Christopher Dee a success and noted the addition of multiple felony courts to address the felony court backlog, with reserve judges and court reporters hired using extra funding. Milwaukee County’s felony backlog still makes up about 12% of the backlog statewide, she said.
She thanked Deputy Chief Judges Judge William Pocan and Carl Ashley for their assistance in guiding the court through the pandemic while managing their own caseloads. She also thanked Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge Maxine Aldridge White “for always taking [her] phone calls” and providing advice.
Triggiano indicated that despite the court’s best efforts, the public health crisis took a toll on court staff, causing a wave of resignations and retirements. In addition, the court is impacted by the shortage of defense attorneys available for appointment by the State Public Defender.
However, recent funding has allowed for the hiring of eight law clerks for the civil division. The court has received a grant for an eviction diversion coordinator. And Triggiano and Clerk of Court George Christenson worked on a budget that increases staff pay to attract and keep high-quality employees.
The court also plans to expand its mental health court, she said.
Following Trigginao’s talk a panel of three judges answered questions about the court’s adoption of videoconferencing for court proceedings.
Judge Jane Carroll indicated that videoconferencing “is here to stay” and was one good thing that came out of the pandemic. The court now needs to figure out how to best incorporate it going forward, she said.
Judge David Feiss remarked that virtual proceedings have made the court rethink its operations. For instance, criminal court had often held “cattle calls” with many cases given the same time for appearance and a full courtroom waiting for cases to be called, he said. Virtual proceedings caused a shift to staggered schedules, which “has improved the quality of the services we provide,” he said.
Judge Kevin Martens noted that virtual proceedings may have increased access for some self-represented parties who previously faced challenges in getting to the courthouse.
Martens was chief of the civil division during the pandemic and estimated that the length of time civil cases took to resolve probably doubled during the pandemic. However, even though resources may have been taken from the civil division to help the criminal division tackle the backlog there, the pandemic impacted the civil division less than the criminal division because many civil hearings could easily move to a virtual format.
Carroll echoed that comment. Because the family division does not hold jury trials and rarely involves someone in custody, that court was able to move very quickly to virtual proceedings, she said.
Martens indicated that when jury trials returned to the courthouse the entire civil division was allowed only one civil trial per week. That number is now up to four trials per week, he said.
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