How Does the Wisconsin Supreme Court Work?
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority in the state. It typically reviews the ruling on select cases by any lower court in Wisconsin. The justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court review cases based on the detailed interpretation of the Wisconsin state constitution, Federal Constitution, and Acts of the Wisconsin Legislature. Justices also consider precedence set by judgment over similar cases as well as authoritative sources of law.
Per Article VII, Section 3 of the Wisconsin Constitution Annotated, the Supreme Court has appellate and original jurisdiction in the state. Its appellate jurisdiction grants it the power to invalidate and rescind any declaration made by a lower court in the state. Consequently, the Supreme Court’s ruling is absolute and binding unless overturned by an amendment to the constitution’s applicable section or a new Congress act. Likewise, the constitution grants the Supreme Court jurisdiction over original actions that it chooses to accept.
Generally, cases move through the legal system, up to the Supreme Court, based on this case process. Cases that end up in the Supreme Court arrive in one of four ways specified in the Supreme Court Internal Operating Procedures.
- Petition for Review: This is the most common process for seeking the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction in Wisconsin. It happens due to discontent with the ruling in the Court of Appeals. Of the thousands of petitions received every year, the Supreme Court only grants a handful. In presenting the petition for review, the Supreme Court will consider the following criteria:
- The case presents a significant challenge to established boundaries of state or federal constitutional law;
- The petition demonstrates a need to consider a statewide policy reform;
- Granting the petition will develop, clarify or harmonize the existing body of law;
- The resolution of the case will have a statewide impact;
- The question presented is likely to recur unless resolved by the Supreme Court;
- The Court of Appeals’ decision deviates from precedence set by the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals itself;
- The case presents a novel need due to the evolution of state and federal law.
- Petition for Bypass: This happens in limited circumstances, where a litigant petitions the Supreme Court for direct review of a case pending a decision from the court of appeals. These kinds of issues must meet at least one of the criteria outlined in Wis. Stat. section 809.62. Furthermore, before the petition, the case must be eligible for review regardless of the appeals court. The Supreme Court will also grant a Petition for Bypass if there is a need to hasten the appellate process.
- Certification by the Court of Appeals: Here, the Court of Appeals acknowledges that a case is beyond its scope or jurisdiction and issues a Certification asking the Supreme Court to review the case. However, issuing a Certification does not compel the Supreme Court to accept a case for review. The case must meet the criteria mentioned above for the petition for review and bypass. Also, at least four Supreme Court Justices must agree to review such a case. An example is the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin v. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources & Appleton Coated LLC (appeal no. 2013-AP–2112).
- Original Jurisdiction: Here, the litigants involved must agree that the case is of such great public importance that only a Supreme Court ruling will suffice. However, as the Supreme Court is not a fact-finding body, the litigants must present and agree on the facts that the court will consider beforehand. Generally, a petition for original jurisdiction must include a statement explaining:
- The background of the dispute;
- The facts in dispute;
- The relief or reconciliation sought;
- The merits of original jurisdiction.
Article VII, Section 4, of the Wisconsin Constitution stipulates that the Supreme Court shall have seven justices elected to 10-year terms. Prior to an amendment of the constitution in 2015, the most senior judge was the chief justice de jure. Following the amendment, the chief justice is elected to a two-year term by a majority vote of the serving justices in a nonpartisan election.
Supreme Court Justices do not have term limits and may serve until the age of 70 years old—the constitutional age of retirement per Article VII, Section 24. Candidates for Supreme Court Justiceship must be licensed to practice law in Wisconsin for at least five years, cannot hold any other elected office of public service, and be under the retirement age.
Per the Supreme Court Internal Operating Procedures, the Chief Justice is the Wisconsin judicial system’s administrative head. Upon expiration of the term, the party may face reelection or replacement, in which case the outgoing Chief Justice will resume justiceship if eligible. However, if a Chief Justice is incapacitated or removed from office, the governor may appoint an acting Chief Justice with Senate approval. The acting Chief Justice will hold the office pending the next election.
Under Article VII, Section 11, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices may be removed from office viz:
- Disciplinary proceedings: Justices who violate Wisconsin’s 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: Following serial complaints, Justices may face dismissal by the address of both houses of the legislature with the concurrence of two-thirds of each house’s members.
- Recall election: Justices are subject to a recall election when 25 percent of the state’s eligible voters submit signatures.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court holds sessions at the state capital, and interested public members may attend court proceedings. The courtroom’s limited capacity means that only parties involved in the litigation and early visitors may attend proceedings. Alternatively, interested members of the public may attend live sessions of oral arguments remotely. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is located at:
Wisconsin State Capitol
110 East Main Street, #440
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: (608) 266–7442
Under the Wisconsin Open Records Law, the public may access non-confidential Supreme Court case records. Interested requesters may retrieve public court records from the case management system.
Likewise, the Wisconsin Supreme Court maintains a table of cases accepted for review. Interested members of the public may download the table to access case information such as:
- The case number and abbreviated caption
- A brief statement of the issue
- Background information on how the case got to the Supreme Court
- The date of oral argument
- The Supreme Court mandate
- Citations to the court of appeals opinion, if applicable