How Does the Wisconsin Court of Appeals Work?
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals is the only intermediate appellate court in Wisconsin. Thus, it reviews erroneous rulings by judges of the lower trial courts. A declaration by the Court of Appeals renders judgments by the lower trial court null and void, and only the Wisconsin Supreme Court can overturn it.
Declarations by the Court of Appeals judges are established based on judges’ interpretation of the Wisconsin Constitution, the Federal Constitution, and the Wisconsin Legislature Acts. Declarations will also consider the body of common law and administrative regulations. Cases move through the legal system, up to the Court of Appeals, in the manner shown in the Wisconsin case process.
Generally, an appeal begins when a party is dissatisfied with the lower trial court’s ruling. Unlike the Supreme Court, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals considers all cases that follow the Wisconsin Appellate Procedure. Generally, the appealing party must obtain a “leave to appeal” from the trial court. In granting a leave to appeal, the petition must meet statutory criteria in Section 808.03(2), which implies that the petition for leave to appeal must show a substantial likelihood of success on merits. In this regard, the trial court will consider the possibility of success on merits ensuring that an appeal will not merely delay or circumvent justice but rather expedite and clarify it. Thus, the court will typically deny a petition for leave to appeal that does not show the trial court’s likely error.
As the Court of Appeal is not a fact-finding body, it will review the case using transcripts of trial proceedings and attorney briefs. In some cases, the court may schedule oral arguments to allow both parties to highlight arguments that may support the case. A verbal argument is also an opportunity for the judges to ask questions that may arise from reviewing transcripts and briefs.
In the end, the Court of Appeals may rule in favor of the appeal, reaffirm the ruling of the trial court, or issue a certification to the Wisconsin Supreme Court if the case presents a need to resolve a question of law before the Supreme Court. In the latter, the Supreme Court may decline to review the case, in which case any outstanding ruling remains valid. The Court of Appeals issues its decisions on a case in the form of opinions. These opinions can set precedence for similar appeals and may guide the decisions of lower court judges. According to a 2018 report by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, the court reviewed 2377 cases and issued 748 opinions.
Sixteen judges from four judicial districts in the state make up the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. One or more judicial circuits make up a district. A Chief Judge, appointed by the Supreme Court to a three-year term, is the administrative head of all four districts. In turn, the Chief Judge appoints a presiding judge to manage a Court of Appeals district. Presiding judges perform these duties for two-year terms in addition to other judgeship duties.
Per Article VII, Section 5, of the Wisconsin Constitution, Judgeship candidates in the state must be a member of the state bar for at least five years. Judges are elected in nonpartisan elections to six-year terms and can get reelected to serve until age 70, which is the state’s constitutional age of retirement. Judges and judgeship candidates of the Appellate Division of the Superior Court must abide by the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct.
Per Article VII, Section 11, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices may be removed from office viz:
- 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.
Interim judges appointed by the governor, with senate approval, replace judges removed from office or become otherwise incapacitated. The temporary judge only completes the term of office, after which the judiciary conducts a nonpartisan election.
The appellate districts are located in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Wausau, and Madison. Interested individuals may use the directory of location and contact information to find more information on the circuits covered by each district.
District 1—Milwaukee circuit court only
330 East Kilbourn Avenue, Suite 1020
Milwaukee, WI 53202–3161
Phone: (414) 227–4680
Fax: (414) 227–4051
District 2—Comprises Twelve (12) circuit courts
2727 North Grandview Boulevard, Suite 300
Waukesha, WI 53188–1672
Phone: (262) 521–5230
Fax: (262) 521–5419
District 3—Comprises Thirty-five (35) circuit courts
2100 Stewart Avenue, Suite 310
Wausau, WI 54401
Phone: (715) 848–1421
Fax: (715) 845–4523
District 4—Comprises Twenty-four (24) circuit courts
2921 Landmark Place, Suite 415
Madison, WI 53713
Phone: (608) 266–9250
Fax: (608) 273–5705
The applicable district of the Court of Appeals hears all appeals from circuit courts. The court allows interested members of the public to attend court proceedings. However, due to limited seats, the court will only admit the parties involved in the litigation and early visitors. Persons who are unable to attend in-person proceedings may join live streams of proceedings remotely.
To find case records, interested individuals may visit the online repository maintained by the Wisconsin Judiciary. The individual may perform a search using the appeal number, party name, attorney name, filing date, and other case information. Alternatively, the requester may search court dockets maintained on independent repositories like wisconsincourtrecords.us.
The timeline of an appellate case varies with the case because the parties involved need to respond to notice of appeals, present briefs, submit court records, and have an oral argument before a panel of judges. According to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals report, the average days taken from Notice of Appeals to Decision are 289 days. Likewise, issuing an opinion can take up to 500 days.