Raise drives justices to slash funding for advisory council

Wisconsin Supreme Court

MADISON — The Wisconsin Supreme Court has decided to quit funding a council that helps justices revise legal procedures across the state after the council’s attorney got a raise of more than $22,000.

The 21-member council includes judges, legislators and attorneys. Justice Annette Ziegler sits on the council as well. The council studies court practices and makes recommendations to the Supreme Court on how to improve the system. The Supreme Court provides the council with $111,400 each year, with $59,600 going to pay the council’s only employee, attorney April Southwick.

Council minutes indicate the panel’s executive committee voted in June to give Southwick the title of executive director and raise her salary from $59,600 to $82,326 after deciding that salary level was consummate with other similar positions in the judicial branch.

The Supreme Court sent the DOA an order on Aug. 17 stating that the justices were concerned about the raise and had decided to stop funding the council by the time Gov. Scott Walker signs the 2017-19 state budget.

The order called the size of the raise “extraordinary” and said justices were concerned about the process used to award it. Director of State Courts Randy Koshnick sent an email to the state Department of Administration on Aug. 1 alleging that under state law, the entire council had to vote on the raise and the executive committee couldn’t authorize it on its own.

Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson, who make up the court’s liberal-leaning minority, dissented. Bradley wrote that the court didn’t have a thorough discussion about defunding the council and called the decision “ill-advised.” She said the council has served the court well for more than 60 years, helping craft evidence rules, civil and criminal procedures and appellate practices.

Judicial Council Chairman Tom Bertz, who sits on the executive committee, didn’t immediately reply to a voicemail Friday. Southwick didn’t reply to email and voicemail messages.

Director of State Courts spokeswoman Sara Foster didn’t immediately reply to an email asking where the justices will turn for recommendations on procedure without the council.