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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson defends Wisconsin Supreme Court's role to Joint Finance Committee
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Abrahamson: "I am here with a greater sense of urgency than ever before."
Abrahamson: "I am here with a greater sense of urgency than ever before."
Credit:Indiana University

During Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson's budget testimony before the Joint Finance Committee, some Republican lawmakers took the opportunity to ask politically motivated questions that strayed from the subject at hand.

Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), for instance, implied that the courts had taken unjustified steps to act as a legislative body and asked Abrahamson to cite cases that were affected by funding gaps in the court's budget. Several Republican initiatives of the last legislative session, including the elimination of collective bargaining for most public employees, Voter ID and redistricting, have been shot down in part by the courts.

Abrahamson responded that the Supreme Court's job was to settle disputes with the law and that, at times, some in the legislature would disagree with the court.

And Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) said he'd like to discuss with the chief justice the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices. The legislature has the ability to set the maximum age, as laid out in the state constitution, but has neglected to do so thus far.

Should the legislature move to set the maximum age, Abrahamson, 79, indicated that she would like to remain on the bench. "I hope you'll grandmother me in," said Abrahamson, who is considered part of the liberal bloc on the Supreme Court and is up for reelection in 2019.

Abrahamson told the Joint Finance Committee Thursday that Gov. Scott Walker's proposed 2013-15 budget would have a devastating effect on the state's court system.

"I am here with a greater sense of urgency than ever before," Abrahamson said in her opening remarks (PDF). The panel is holding agency briefings on Gov. Scott Walker's proposed 2013-2015 budget, which was introduced to the Legislature Wednesday as Assembly Bill 40.

At the heart of Abrahamson's concerns: a $17 million budget cut originally put in place in the governor's 2011-2013 budget. Language from that budget applied the same cuts to the 2013-2015 budget, and Abrahamson said that if this 'lapse' stays in place, the court system would suffer. "This double whammy doesn't make sense to us."

Abrahamson said the court system has plans to absorb $6.7 million of the lapse, but had requested that $10.3 million be restored in the new budget.

Without those additional funds, Abrahamson argued that the court system would experience delays stemming from reductions in court staff.

At the county level, trial courts handle roughly a million filings every year. Abrahamson said courts would have a harder time collecting fees, as well as maintaining court information technology efforts. Transparency and court revenue would suffer as a result. The court collects $150.5 million annually, said Abrahamson, much of which is returned to the state to fund programs in other departments.

The court system is also struggling with judicial pay and access to legal representation in civil cases. Walker did not include any salary increases for judges in his budget. Abrahamson told lawmakers Thursday that judicial compensation hasn't increased since 2009, and that courts are having more trouble attracting high-quality lawyers and keeping the ones who are there.

Abrahamson also stressed a growing need for state funding for indigent individuals who are involved in civil litigation. (The state Public Defender's Office provides lawyers for poor defendants in criminal cases.) Though she did not request such funding, Abrahamson said that it would reduce court delays and allow for more fairness in the justice system.

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