The future is now: The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Planning and Policy Advisory Committee

WDC Journal Edition: Fall 2003
By: Dan Wassink - Senior Policy Analyst Wisconsin Court System

It’s not easy keeping an eye on the future of the Wisconsin court system. In these times of budget cutbacks when “making do with less” is general practice throughout state government, most court officials and administrators need to keep both eyes squarely focused on the present. Planning for the future may seem like an unnecessary luxury.

However, planning for the future is the main job of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s Planning and Policy Advisory Committee (PPAC). And it can be argued that in these severe economic times, the role of PPAC has never been more important. After all, the state’s fiscal situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon, and the court system must continue to prepare to address that challenge and meet its constitutional responsibility even during lean economic times. Structured planning is critical to that process.

The Supreme Court created PPAC by rule in 1990 to “advise the supreme court and the director of state courts in the director’s capacity as planner and policy advisor for the judicial system. The committee shall also assist the Supreme Court and the director in evaluating the administrative structure of the court system…and advise on the expeditious handling of judicial matters in the future.” i <#_edn1> PPAC consists of the Supreme Court Chief Justice, who also serves as committee chair; a court of appeals judge; thirteen circuit court judges, with at least one from each judicial administrative district; a municipal judge; two representatives of the Wisconsin Bar Association; three non-lawyers, one of whom must be an elected county official; a public defender; a court administrator; a prosecutor; and a clerk of court. Members serve three-year terms and the committee meets quarterly, including an annual meeting with the Supreme Court justices.

Since its creation, PPAC has coordinated several projects with wide-ranging impact on the Wisconsin court system. One of its first orders of business was to create a strategic plan for the court system. The Framework for Action document outlines a general direction for the courts, including mission and vision statements, identification of the system’s strengths and weaknesses, and creation of a strategy for addressing the critical issues facing the courts. PPAC periodically updates the strategic plan.

Given that foundation, PPAC tackled many different projects, one of the first being a study in 1994 of the functions of court commissioners and the administrative structure needed to ensure system accountability. The study served as the basis for SCR 75, which provides for the appointment, performance evaluation, continuing education and discipline of judicial court commissioners. Also in 1994, the committee initiated a review of facility, staffing and security issues in the circuit courts. That study resulted in SCR 70.39 establishing facility, security and staffing guidelines. PPAC monitors local progress in meeting those guidelines by collecting information twice a year from each county’s security and facilities committee. That semi-annual collection process was expanded recently to include information about security incidents occurring on and off the courthouse premises. Several counties have used that data to push for added security measures, especially after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

More recently, PPAC has created subcommittees to examine issues such as the shortage of court reporters and the feasibility of court reporting technology; the proliferation of court-imposed surcharges that fund a variety of programs, many of which are not court-related; and the structure used to finance the court system. In fact, at the writing of this article, the court financing subcommittee was drafting its final report to identify an effective and responsible financing system to support court services. The report is expected to contain recommendations for changes in the way the state and counties currently fund the courts.

In January 2001, PPAC took a big step toward re-emphasizing and strengthening its planning function. At the suggestion of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, committee chairperson, PPAC created a permanent planning subcommittee. The idea was to form a smaller group (eight members) consisting of individuals who are interested in, and recognize the importance of, long-range planning. PPAC’s planning subcommittee meets on a two-year cycle coinciding with the state budget process. Members receive regular updates on the budget as it affects the courts and, in turn, make budget-related recommendations to the Supreme Court. However, more importantly, the subcommittee has its eyes on the future. It identifies a host of nationwide and statewide trends with the potential to affect the courts – everything from privacy of court records to emerging technology to racial matters. The subcommittee then uses those trends, along with external and internal sources of input, to identify critical issues facing the court system within the next three to five years. Finally, it prioritizes those issues, narrows the list to the top four or five most critical, and prepares a final report to the Supreme Court. The issues are presented along with background, objectives, and measures of success to gauge whether the objectives are being met.

As the planning subcommittee entered its second meeting cycle in January 2003, the members felt that something was missing. The subcommittee had done an excellent job gathering internal input from all levels of the court system; however, external input sources were lacking. With that in mind, members approached two additional groups for necessary and important feedback: the general public and attorneys.

Thanks to a grant from the State Justice Institute (SJI), the subcommittee was able to work with the University of Wisconsin (UW) Survey Center in Madison to develop a survey of court users. Surveys were mailed to individuals from selected counties who had recent contact with the courts, asking them about their experiences and perceptions of the legal process. At the same time, the UW Survey Center conducted a Badger Poll (statewide phone survey) of randomly-selected individuals to ask general questions about how well the courts are doing their job. The planning subcommittee will utilize the results of both surveys (still pending at the writing of this article) in its work to identify and prioritize critical issues.

Subcommittee members also realized that input from attorneys was a vital part of the issue identification process. Therefore, in May and June of 2003, subcommittee representatives attended meetings of the criminal law, family law, appellate practice and litigation sections of the Wisconsin Bar Association. The goal was to determine the most appropriate methods for gathering feedback from section members, and to begin an initial discussion concerning the critical issues facing the court system. At the time this article was written, subcommittee members were using that feedback to craft a survey tool for attorneys. The results of that survey will undoubtedly provide the subcommittee with very valuable information and insight as it crafts its final report to the Supreme Court.

More than a decade after its creation, PPAC has developed into an important part of the effective functioning of the Wisconsin court system. It is unique in providing judges, attorneys, court administrators, county officials, the general public, and other parties a voice in plotting the future of the courts. If you would like more information about the committee and its work, including a copy of the planning subcommittee’s initial report to the Supreme Court in 2002, contact Mr. Dan Wassink, PPAC Senior Policy Analyst, at (608) 266-8861 or by e-mail at dan.wassink@courts.state.wi.us. Or visit PPAC’s webpage on the court system’s website at http://www.wicourts.gov/global/reports/planning&policy.html

Dan Wassink, a graduate of Central Mich. University, is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Wisconsin Court System. He has previously served as a Policy Analyst at the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles as well as a Legislative Assistant in the Wisconsin Senate and a news reporter in Madison, Wisconsin.