Wisconsin Court Records
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How Does the Wisconsin Circuit Court Work?
The Wisconsin Circuit Court is the state’s trial court with original jurisdiction. Typically, most criminal and civil cases in the state begin here, and the circuit court may handle issues beyond the limited jurisdiction of the lower municipal courts. Each of the 72 counties in the state of Wisconsin has one or more circuit courts attached to it. While smaller circuit courts handle all types of cases, larger circuit courts are divided into divisions, where each judge handles specific types of cases. Judges are reassigned among these divisions based on judicial rotation every two to four years.
- Criminal Division: This division of the Circuit Court hears criminal cases involving offenses specified in the Wisconsin Criminal Code. Larger circuit courts may have divisions for misdemeanors, felonies, and criminal traffic violations.
- Civil Division: The civil division is responsible for resolving cases involving monetary damages, such as small claims, personal torts, business, and contractual disputes. Civil litigations in Wisconsin follow the Civil Procedure.
- Family Division: The family division of the Circuit Court resolves disputes and litigations involving families and domestic partnerships. Typical cases include divorce, annulment, domestic violence, adoption, and restraining orders.
- Juvenile Division: The juvenile division handles matters involving minors, including termination of parental rights, guardianship, adoption, juvenile delinquency, and juvenile ordinance violations. This division handles cases based on the Juvenile Justice Code.
These circuit courts fall within ten judicial districts; each judicial district is lead by a Chief Judge selected by the Supreme Court. A deputy chief judge and other judicial staff, including the circuit court clerk, a district court administrator, and a court management assistant, assist the chief judge. Likewise, the chief judge appoints a presiding judge to be the administrative head of a circuit court with a panel of 3 or more judges.
Cases in circuit courts begin when a litigant files a suit with the Clerk of Courts. In civil lawsuits, the plaintiff, represented by an attorney, seeks the court’s enforcement of an obligation or court-ordered remedy for a wrong. On the other hand, criminal cases are between the state and the offender. Criminal suits are filed by the government and not the victim because the defendant has violated the state’s penal code. If the victim seeks damages against the offender, they must initiate a civil suit.
Compared to other parts of the judiciary, Wisconsin circuit courts have the highest workload in the state. According to statistical reports by the judiciary, Wisconsin circuit courts process an average of 800,000 cases annually.
Generally, the timeline of a case from filing to disposition depends on its complexity and county of jurisdiction. For example, in Crawford County, a misdemeanor case takes up to two months, while the disposition of tort or personal injury can take up to twelve months. Most cases go through several stages before they can proceed to trial.
Generally, the litigants may have to go through a court-mandated mediation or arrive at a plea bargain. A trial is the last resort when mediation fails, and litigants fail to arrive at a plea bargain. For cases that proceed to trial, the court will have to schedule a date for preliminary hearings and oral arguments. Also, jury deliberations may take hours to weeks, depending on the complexity of the case. Thus, an issue may be resolved within weeks or go on for months.
When a party is dissatisfied with the Circuit Court ruling, they may appeal the verdict in the Court of Appeals. Appealing a verdict involves obtaining leave to appeal from the circuit court. The court will consider the merits of the petition under criteria established in Section 808.03(2) of the state’s statutes.
At present, there are 249 circuit court judges in Wisconsin. A nonpartisan election determines circuit court judges. A circuit court judge will serve an initial term of six years is eligible for reelection for unlimited terms before retiring at age 70. Per Article VI, Section VI, of the Wisconsin Constitution, judgeship candidates must be members of the state bar for at least five years, cannot hold any other elective office, and must follow the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct. If a judge is removed, incapacitated, or dies in office, the governor may appoint an interim judge with senate confirmation. The acting judge will perform the office’s duties until the term is over, and the court will conduct another nonpartisan election.
Article VII, Section 11, of the state’s constitution makes provisions for the removal of judges from office, such as:
- Disciplinary proceedings: Judges who violate the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct may be removed based on the Wisconsin judicial commission’s review.
- Impeachment: This requires a majority vote of the assembly and conviction by a two-thirds vote of the senate.
- Legislature Address: Judges may face removal by the address of both houses of the legislature with the concurrence of two-thirds of each house’s members.
- Recall election: Following the submission of the signatures of 25 percent of eligible voters in a district, Court of Appeals judges are subject to recall election.
To access circuit court records, interested individuals must contact the official custodian of the court record. The custodian is typically the Clerk of Court office in the county where the case was filed. The Wisconsin Open Records Law directs the Clerk to make the record available for public perusal unless a court order or statute has sealed such a document. In this case, the individual must present a court order granting access to that specific record. Regardless, the requester must provide the necessary information to facilitate the search and cover the costs of searching, reproducing, and certifying physical copies of requested records. Also, Wisconsin Circuit Courts grant online public access to court records via a centralized case management system.
Interested individuals may consult a detailed directory of circuit courts in the state. Nevertheless, this compact list of Circuit Courts’ location in Wisconsin will help access court information, site, and contact information: