The Role of the State Supreme Court
By Christine Bremer Muggli
March 2008

Millions of dollars have been spent on ads for this year’s Supreme Court race, but unfortunately not one of them has helped give Wisconsin voters a clear view of what the Court’s responsibilities are or what a Justice does.

Let’s start with the State Supreme Court.   According to their website “A primary function of the Supreme Court is to ensure independent, open, fair and efficient resolution of disputes in accordance with the federal and state constitutions and laws.” 

In fact, the Supreme Court sees very few cases, and only at the end of a long process.   Circuit courts throughout Wisconsin handle thousands of cases – criminal, divorce, contract disputes, etc.    Most are settled or dismissed.  Several hundred are tried before juries.  Once a decision has been made in a case it can be appealed to the Court of Appeals.  A decision by this court can then be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has a set of criteria it uses to accept cases.   Generally the case must be very important with any of the following criteria 1) significant state or federal constitutional question, 2) the issue will have a statewide impact, 3) the case is one that will likely reoccur, 4) the Court of Appeals decision may be in conflict with a previous Supreme Court case.   Three justices must agree the case is important before it is accepted.  The Supreme Court only hears about 70-100 cases a year, so most appeals are denied.

When a case is heard both sides file a written brief, providing the Court with the facts of the case, the questions the Court must answer and an argument for the why the Court should decide the case their way.   Both sides then appear before the Court and argue their case in person with Justices asking many questions.

There are no juries or “trials” in the Supreme Court.   The facts of the case are not in question, only how the law applies. 

After the arguments the Justices meet privately to discuss the case.   Once it is clear how the case will be decided one Justice is assigned to write an “opinion”.   The opinion is shared with the other Justices.  If a Justice does not agreed with the majority, he or she may write a dissenting opinion.  After a several month process the drafts are circulated and the opinion is then issued.

This long and tedious process requires a strong work ethic.   The briefs and court records Justices must read, analyze and carefully scrutinize can be more than 1,000 pages in length.   Justices must be critical thinkers, analyzing the facts and the law to reach a fair result.  And Justices must be able to communicate clearly, concisely and convincingly about why the court is deciding the case in a particular way, providing guidance to trial courts and the citizens who may encounter similar issues.

It is good for Justices to have varied backgrounds with experience in civil and criminal matters.   Despite what most the recent TV ads suggest, the vast majority of the cases heard by the Supreme Court – nearly two-thirds – are civil.

While the Supreme Court may at times make decisions that some dislike such as throwing out evidence in a case or declaring a statute unconstitutional it does not make the Court “bad.” They are only doing their job – protecting the rights guaranteed to all of us by the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions.

So on April 1 when you head to the polls consider the duties of the Supreme Court and the duties of the seven Justices, not the rhetoric that’s been accumulating quicker than the snow this winter.

Christine Bremer Muggli is the President of the Wisconsin Association for Justice (formerly the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers), Wisconsin’s largest statewide voluntary attorney organization defending the civil justice system.  Look for Christine’s columns each month.

Our sponsors