Lawmaker wants state to require municipal judges to be lawyers
On a given night in city court, Edgerton Municipal Judge Ronald Strouse sees dozens of offenders accused of speeding, drunken driving and parking violations.
He deals with juveniles accused of truancy and underage drinking and has the power to hand down fines and assign points against a person’s driver’s license. Occasionally, he even notarizes a marriage.
All that, and he’s not even an attorney.
Strouse, a retired Rock County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant, is far from the only non-lawyer working as municipal judge in Wisconsin. About half of the state’s elected municipal judges don’t hold a law degree, according to the Wisconsin Director of State Courts Office.
Other area municipal judges also are not attorneys. For instance, city of Milton Municipal Judge Kristin Koeffler has a master’s degree in counseling, not law. And the Wisconsin Supreme Court lists Orfordville Municipal Judge Terry Miller as an electrical technician, not a lawyer.
Under state law, municipal judges, like other local elected officials, must meet local residency requirements and have a clean criminal background. They also must undergo state training for handling non-criminal legal cases. But there is no state statute requiring that they be licensed attorneys.
One state lawmaker wants to change that.
State Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, introduced a bill last week that would require anyone seeking office for municipal judge to be an attorney licensed through the Wisconsin State Bar Association.
The proposed mandate would go into effect Jan. 1, 2012, and would not affect current judges, officials said.
Kessler, a retired attorney and a former county and circuit court judge, said his proposal would improve the quality of justice in municipal courts because it would ensure that all municipal judges had uniform training and education in law.
“What I want is for people to have a right to a fair trial and for judges to rule based on legitimate evidence,” said Kessler. “I don’t want people who are untrained in what I think are pretty essential guidelines to potentially commit injustices. I think that happens in a lot of municipal courts.”
Kessler didn’t have specific examples of non-lawyer municipal judges trampling on people’s rights, nor did he have statistical evidence showing that people are more likely to be displeased with rulings by municipal judges who aren’t lawyers.
He said it’s hard to quantify that kind of discontent because people tend not to contest petty ordinance fines—mainly out of fear of the potential cost of an appeal.
“Instead, you just grouse about it,” Kessler said.
Strouse said he doesn’t believe municipal judges need to have a law degree.
He pointed out that each newly elected municipal judge goes through state training and mentoring programs.
Strouse said he draws from three decades of law enforcement experience.
“I know when an arrest ticket does or doesn’t have every ‘T’ crossed and every ‘I’ dotted,” he said.
Strouse said even if a judge is new to the court system, there are plenty of resources. He said the state Supreme Court gives judges constant updates on laws, and each new judge is paired with a mentor who can act as a lifeline during tough cases.
“It’s about taking your time and using common sense. There are plenty of avenues for that,” Strouse said.
Koeffler argues the state’s elected municipal judges have been doing a fine job.
“If we weren’t, the state would have changed the requirements long ago,” she said.
Strouse said he believes rural municipalities would have a hard time finding attorneys who met residency requirements and would agree to work as a municipal judge for the same pay as non-lawyers.
Strouse is paid $4,900 a year, and Koeffler is paid $4,000 a year, according to clerks’ records at the cities of Milton and Edgerton. Both hold two approximately three-hour hearings a month.
Some area municipalities, such as Evansville, already require that their municipal judge be a state-licensed attorney. Thomas Alisankus, Evansville’s municipal judge, earns $10,000 annually, according to city records.
Strouse said he’d worried Kessler’s proposal could lead to small municipal courts folding under financial pressure and having to transfer their caseloads to circuit courts.
Strouse estimates his court sees about 1,000 cases a year. And Milton’s municipal court handles on average at least 70 cases a month, according to Milton Clerk of Courts Kris Klubertanz.
“All of the circuit courts are hollering about how they’re overloaded as it is. If you didn’t have these municipal courts and all these ordinance violations were shipped to a circuit court, the overload would be unbelievable,” Strouse said.
Kessler waved away those concerns, saying that some areas in the state have had consolidated circuit courts for years.
He said rural municipalities could band together and form regional court systems such as Mid-Moraine Municipal Court in West Bend. The court handles non-criminal cases for 16 communities in Washington and Ozaukee counties.
According to Mid-Moraine Clerk of Courts Kathy Buth, the court has one part-time elected judge who under the court’s bylaws must be a state-licensed attorney.
Buth said the judge travels with staff, holding court hearings several times a month in most of the court’s member communities. She said the judge works about 65 hours a month and is paid $74,000 a year.
Overall, the court processes about 20,000 cases a year, and each member municipality pays based on its use of court services, Buth said.
More than a hearing
Koeffler argues her court does more than just process cases. She said hers and other small municipal courts are meant to be accessible and are tailored to fit communities’ needs.
She said she uses her experiences as director of the Rock County Deferred Prosecution Program and as a family counselor to turn a court experience into a lesson, especially for young violators.
In fact, each of Koeffler’s court sessions is structured so juveniles with new charges must sit through adult hearings before their cases are heard.
"It’s a common sense court. You need to know right from wrong." Koeffler said. "They’re arrested, they’re held accountable."
A state law that went into effect Jan. 1 allows municipalities to set four-year terms for municipal judges. The change means that Koeffler and some other newly elected judges will hold their seats until 2015.
She joked about Kessler’s proposed law change.
“I’ve got plenty of time to earn a law degree,” she said.