By Margo Kirchner
The new Foxconn law changes the rules for how Wisconsin courts work in cases involving government decisions about the firm and its site, giving Foxconn quicker access and more access to appellate courts than other firms and individuals in the state have.
And Foxconn’s ability to push to the head of the line means that other Wisconsin citizens seeking justice in the courts face potentially lengthy delays.
Under the new law, Foxconn gets multiple appeals of unfavorable trial court rulings in a single case. It doesn’t work that way for others. With a few exceptions, litigants in trial courts must await final judgment before appealing the case.
Not so for those litigating governmental decisions concerning Foxconn or its site, called an “electronics and information technology manufacturing” (EITM) zone. Those litigants can immediately appeal any trial court order relating to the governmental decision, so one case may generate multiple appeals (and delays) if the trial court issues multiple orders. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals must accept a mid-case appeal from EITM-zone litigation; in other cases, the appeals court can reject such an appeal.
If Foxconn doesn’t like how a circuit court rules, it gets to jump right to the highest court in the state for its appeals. The vast majority of non-Foxconn appellants head first to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Only after that court issues its decision does the losing party petition the Supreme Court of Wisconsin to review the case.
Not so for litigants in an EITM-zone case. Instead, the Court of Appeals must certify an EITM-zone appeal to the Supreme Court, meaning that the case may bypass the Court of Appeals. Contrary to its exercise of discretion in other cases, the Court of Appeals has no choice regarding certification, regardless of whether that court believes certification is justified.
Moreover, the briefing and certification process in Foxconn cases occur on an expedited schedule. Previously, the legislature directed expedited schedules for cases involving termination of parental rights and consent to a minor’s abortion. The Foxconn legislation puts EITM-zone appeals on a similar fast track.
Certification does not mean the Supreme Court must take the case. The Supreme Court generally reviews cases that involve a significant question of constitutional law, new doctrine, a novel issue with statewide impact, a legal question likely to recur, a conflict between a lower-court decision and decisions of other courts, or the need for policy. Four of the seven justices must agree to the bypass.
The Foxconn legislation bumps any appeal concerning governmental decisions about an EITM zone to the Supreme Court for consideration of certification regardless of whether that case involves matters of statewide concern, unsettled law or policy, or lower-court conflicts. A Foxconn appeal of, say, a building inspector’s requirement, a municipal zoning decision, or an environmental agency determination may not have statewide significance.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court now must spend time considering each certification, impacting the Court’s other work.
Certification is generally not a quick process. Each one requires a commissioner to draft a memorandum analyzing the facts and law involved in the appeal and recommending whether certification should be granted. The justices are expected to read each certification and memorandum, listen to an oral report by the commissioner, then decide whether to grant certification. During the 2016-2017 term, the Supreme Court received only six certifications from the courts of appeals and accepted only one. Presumably, EITM-zone litigation will significantly increase the number of certifications the Supreme Court will have to consider.
It’s too early to know whether the Court will actually grant more certifications. Will EITM-zone litigation cause the Supreme Court to accept fewer cases not related to Foxconn?
Moreover, the Foxconn legislation mandates that the Supreme Court “give preference” to a certification regarding an EITM-zone appeal. In other words, the Supreme Court must place any Foxconn EITM-zone case ahead of other appeals, including those concerning important civil and criminal matters.
Once Foxconn starts filing appeals, no matter how inconsequential, the court’s work on issues of statewide importance will get pushed to the side.
Based on this term’s calendar, here are the types of cases that could sit when Foxconn skips ahead in line:
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
Sign up for the free WJI newsletter.
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin