A Bill (SB117) which passed out of the Judiciary, Utilities, Commerce, and Government Operations Committee in September would give plaintiffs bringing suit against The State of Wisconsin the ability to choose the County in which to originate the action – removing Dane County as the seat for judicial authority in the state. In addition, the Plaintiff bringing the lawsuit could choose the Court of Appeals Branch in which to originate an appeal, provided the selected Appellate Branch not be in the Circuit Court Branch of origin. This bill is now available for scheduling to the full Legislature. If passed, it would allow anyone bringing a suit against the State to originate that lawsuit in any Wisconsin County – regardless of residency or interest.
In a phone interview with Badger Democracy, Thom Ciske, VP of Government relations for the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce and Industry explained the organizations’ support for the bill. He stated that when the group looked at the bill it “made sense.” Ciske explained “…it seemed arrogant on behalf of the State that Dane County should be the place where lawsuits are brought (against the state).” Mr. Ciske compared the taxpayer to a “customer” and the State should make it more convenient to bring suit against it for the “average citizen.” When challenged with the legal fact that a “customer” living in Milwaukee County could not originate a lawsuit against a Corporation based in Appleton in Dane County, he had no response. State Senator Leah Vukmir (R – Brookfield) was contacted and did not respond to request for comment on the bill.
Upon request, Dane County Clerk of Courts Carlo Esqueda provided Badger Democracy a list of all suits brought against Wisconsin in 2010. Out of 23 lawsuits naming the State (or one of its agencies) as defendant, 8 were a result of Act 10, the Capitol lock-down, or the Open Meetings violation challenge. 4 named the Lottery as defendant. Of the 11 remaining lawsuits, the majority are the most telling as to the benefactor of this bill. 7 lawsuits filed against the State of Wisconsin were by Corporations against the Department of Revenue, fighting the State regarding owed taxes. Five of those Corporations are Telecom entities. As is the pattern for GOP Legislation with this Session, SB 117 will be an open door giveaway for Corporations looking to increase profits, pay less taxes, and game the system. In this case, giving them the ability to “Court shop” for sympathetic, conservative judges to rule in favor of business interests over the State.
In a statement to Badger Democracy, Senator Jon Erpenbach explained his “no” vote in committee (Senator Risser also voted “no”):
“I voted against this bill because Dane County is the seat of state government and if someone wants to sue the state that is where is should be done. It is too costly for counties and the state to take on the burden of lawsuits filed wherever an aggrieved person wants to file. Additionally, the practice of hunting for the “best court” is just shopping for Judges, and not good public policy. It is a waste of money that Wisconsin and the counties just don’t have right now. We have cut the courts budgets and cut the Department of Justice budget – we need to let them do their job and not chase lawsuits all over the state.”
No impact study has been done on the cost of DOJ attorneys traveling around the state to defend actions from Kenosha to Bayfield, depending on the whim of the Plaintiff. As stated previously, Senator Vukmir did not respond to requests for comment on SB117. The Legislative Session recommencing in October stands to be a repeat of the rest of the session – more gifts for the Corporate sponsors of the current GOP power structure in Madison, and less real job creating policies for the rest of us.
Call your Legislators, and inform them that you know about SB117, and oppose it as bad Judicial Law for Wisconsin.