More Judicial Outreach: "Justice on Wheels" from the Supreme Court of Wisconsin

By Nelson, Ingrid A. | Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

More Judicial Outreach: "Justice on Wheels" from the Supreme Court of Wisconsin


Nelson, Ingrid A., Journal of Appellate Practice and Process


The judicial branch has long been the least seen, and consequently the least understood, of the three branches of government. Outside of television, movies, and novels, most people have no idea what really goes on in a trial court, let alone an appellate court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is trying to change that by taking its "show" on the road and providing those outside of Madison, the state's capital, an opportunity to learn what goes on in the state's highest court.

The "Justice on Wheels" program brings Supreme Court oral arguments to various counties around the state. For several days each year, the Court leaves its heating room at the state capitol and hears arguments in a distant locale before an audience of local residents who otherwise might never have the opportunity to observe the Court in action.

"Public outreach is very important to me," says Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson. "I've always advocated for judges doing things outside the courtroom." (1) Indeed, when she was appointed to the Court in 1976, her investiture ceremony was held not in the Supreme Court Hearing Room, as was then customary, but in the Wisconsin Assembly chambers, which can hold a larger audience. Since then, other justices have followed suit, and Chief Justice Abrahamson was sworn in as chief in the state capitol rotunda, which can accommodate a much larger crowd than either the hearing room or the Assembly chambers.

Chief Justice Abrahamson floated the idea of a road trip a few times over the years without success. It wasn't until 1993 that the idea was finally put to a vote. With three of the seven justices dissenting, the Court determined that it would hear arguments outside of Madison for the first time in its history. The chief justice chose the first destination: the city of Green Bay, with a population of 100,000. The hearings were conducted in an elegant courtroom in the local courthouse and were attended by over 300 people. Both the community and the justices considered the experiment a great success. (2) Since then, the Court has heard arguments in Eau Claire, Wausau, Milwaukee, La Crosse, Superior, Janesville, Kenosha, Baraboo, Juneau, Rhinelander, Appleton, Stevens Point, Racine, and Fond du Lac. (3)

In choosing a location for a Justice on Wheels visit, the Court looks for a city with a courtroom that can accommodate seven justices and a large audience. The Court also considers the availability of media outlets to publicize the visit, and the proximity of schools and colleges whose students might take the opportunity to see an appellate court's proceedings. Planning for a trip typically takes five months and involves figuring out how to stretch a one-judge courtroom to accommodate seven judges, meeting with the local sheriff about parking and security issues, and working with the trial court to ensure a minimum of disruption in the courthouse.

The cases to be heard during a Justice on Wheels visit are chosen with several considerations in mind. If possible, cases that originated in the host county or surrounding counties are placed on the docket. The Court also considers what types of cases would be most interesting for the audience, choosing, for example, a search-and-seizure case over a case involving an issue of appellate procedure. Teachers planning to bring students to observe the arguments receive synopses of the cases and information about the Court ahead of time, and the cases are described in press releases sent to local media. Local attorneys are recruited to study the cases. They make themselves available for in-depth presentations in the schools and provide ten-minute "warm-up" presentations to the audience immediately before the arguments.

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