Wisconsin Court System

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Because most cases start at the lower end of the judicial spectrum, it would only be fair to discuss the tribunals which form the base of the judicial pyramid in the state. The court system of Wisconsin comprises of 4 categories and the tribunals at each level have their own set of responsibilities and authorities.

The Municipal Courts

These can be deemed as the first level tribunals of the state. They are additional trial courts and have limited jurisdiction which means they can only handle certain types of cases. Typically, they will hear matters involving misdemeanors and petty offenses along with civil claims. There are 237 Municipal Courts across the state, which are served by 240 judges. The largest Municipal Court is in Milwaukee with three full time judges, while Madison has the other full time Municipal Tribunal.

The decisions of the Municipal Court can be contested in the Circuit Courts. Not all municipal divisions in the state have their own Municipal Courts, some municipalities are joined together to form tribunals. The judges of municipal courts are not required to have the license to practice law in the state and they are elected to 2 to 4 year terms. Among the more notable responsibilities of these courts is their jurisdiction to release arrest warrants in Wisconsin.

Circuit courts

These are the single level, trial tribunals of the state which have general jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases This means they can hear matters ranging from probate and adoption to assault and domestic disputes. There are 249 Circuit Court judges who hear cases across 72 counties. While many counties have one judge each, some smaller counties have one judge serving multiple tribunals. Milwaukee has the largest judicial panel with 47 judges.

Circuit Court judges are appointed to 6 year terms and they deliver the verdict in cases where the defense has waived the right to a jury trial. In case of the latter, the judge will issue instructions to the jury and make them aware of their responsibilities while supervising the trial. The judge is also responsible for passing the sentence. Typically, the Circuit Courts hear the more serious cases in the state.

Court of Appeals

Created along with the Circuit Courts in 1978, the Court of Appeals is the intermediate level tribunal at which the verdict from the lower courts can be challenged. It was designed to accept a case load of about 1200 matters per annum. The Court of Appeals has mandatory jurisdiction; this means that this is the tribunal that will handle almost all appeals from the Circuit Courts.

It is served by 16 judges who work across 4 judicial districts and are appointed to 6 years terms. This is an error correcting tribunal, so the cases are not heard all over again at this level. Instead the panel of judges will only look for any constitutional mistakes that were committed by the judiciary. Appeals from this court (if allowed) are taken to apex court of Wisconsin.

The Supreme Court

The highest judicial entity in the state, The Supreme Court not only hears appeals from all lower tribunals but also has additional regulatory and administrative roles to play. Since it is the court of last resort for Wisconsin, it has appellate jurisdiction over the Court of Appeals as well as all other tribunals in the state. However, it also has discretionary powers, which means that it can take a call on the appeal petitions that it hears.

Typically, in a year, about 1200 petitions are reviewed; however, the Supreme Court only hears about 100 to 200 cases. The decision of the Supreme Court is a binding on all lower judicial entities unless the matter involves the interpretation of a federal law. The apex judicial body is served by seven justices who sit en banc to hear the appeals. The senior most member of the panel is chosen as the Chief Justice and the justices are all elected to 10 year terms.