Your Right to Know: Pull the plug on shadowy business courts

By RICHARD NIESS

Anyone who doubts that secrecy in government breeds poor public policy should take a look at the Business Court Pilot Project launched by our Wisconsin Supreme Court. 

For the last five years, the project has granted large commercial interests outsized influence over our court system’s handling of their cases, exactly as intended. The business court pilot debuted in 2017 in Waukesha County and the 8th judicial district (encompassing Brown, Marinette, Kewaunee, Oconto, Door, Outagamie and Waupaca counties). It was expanded to other districts and, in a surprise move, to Dane County in 2020.

Here’s how it works: the Chief Justice, currently Annette Ziegler, receives recommendations from big business and selects a limited number of business court judges. These hand-picked judges then receive training out-of-state from special interests aligned with big business. They follow court procedures drafted by big business lawyers.

The process largely bypasses the voter-controlled and otherwise random judicial assignment of cases. It creates a two-tiered court system — one controlled by business interests and one for everybody else. 

It began in September 2016, when then-Chief Justice Patience Roggensack formed the “Business Court Advisory Committee” to develop a specialty court proposed by big business, for big business. Ignoring the Supreme Court’s own internal operating procedures designed to promote transparency and diversity of opinion in appointing court committees, the chief justice stacked the committee with lawyers representing business interests. 

The committee included no labor or consumer advocates, no one representing the viewpoints of the public, and no one speaking for other stakeholders in our circuit court system.

Working privately, the advisory committee soon hatched a petition to establish and control the business court, which it filed with the Supreme Court on October 26, 2016. Less than two weeks later, the court adopted the petition by a 5-2 vote, with no public hearing, no opportunity for public comment, and no public notice that the petition was even scheduled for a vote.

Thus, out of public view, our Supreme Court rapidly and fundamentally changed our circuit courts’ democratic structure for handling big business commercial litigation, simultaneously degrading judicial independence and corrupting a cardinal principle underpinning our court system — that everyone should be treated equally when he or she comes before the court. 

The business court model was forced on to the Dane County circuit court system beginning in July 2020. The Supreme Court is now weighing a petition to extend the pilot program, set to expire on June 30, 2022, for another two years.

The big business takeover of circuit court commercial litigation wasn’t the first time our Supreme Court displayed a penchant for secrecy.

For example, in 2012, the Supreme Court majority voted to close administrative rules conferences to the public, reversing an open meetings policy that had informed Wisconsin voters on important court matters for years. “To sit out here in public and philosophize,” said then-Justice Roggensack, “is really not the best use of our time.”

A more transparent approach might have led to a different outcome on the Business Court pilot project. But it’s not too late to comment on the request to expand the project for another two years. Written comments can be submitted to Attorney Laura Brenner at [email protected], and should be received by 4:30 p.m. on April 8.  

This time, transparency may produce a better result — a return to normalcy for our courts.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Attorney Richard G. Niess served as a Dane County Circuit Court judge from 2004 to 2020, including 13 years as presiding judge of the civil division.

Comments are closed.

  • Letter to the editor: This isn’t about you

    April 28th, 2022
    by

    In the late ‘40s and ‘50s, polio disabled about 35,000 people a year, most of whom were children. My cousin Anita, who contracted polio when she was 2, was one of the lucky ones because it only affected her left leg. Others we knew weren’t so lucky.


    Letter to the editor: Use of Falcon logo wasn’t meant to be offensive

    April 28th, 2022
    by

    This letter is in response to a letter to the editor about the Falcon logo in the County Line dated April 14, 2022. 


    Letter to the editor: Falcon logo shouldn’t be used on social media to promote particular political beliefs

    April 14th, 2022
    by

    This letter is in response to a disturbing practice of which I was recently made aware.  But first, a little local history…


    Letter to the editor: Thank you for election information

    April 7th, 2022
    by

    In preparation for the April 5 election, I’ve been catching up with recent issues of the County Line and other local papers.


    Letter to the editor: Evers fails to help rural EMS

    April 7th, 2022
    by

    On March 31, Gov. Evers vetoed SB 89; this legislation would have aided struggling rural EMS agencies across the state. 


  • Letter to the editor: Believe anything

    April 7th, 2022
    by

    Every so often, the world goes seriously sideways, and we find ourselves dealing with war or famine or drought or flooding or disease — or all of these simultaneously. Unlike in the past, we have the tools to help us cope, but wading through the disinformation and conspiracy du jour is a hard slog.


    Letter to the editor: Disappointed in Gov. Evers

    April 7th, 2022
    by

    I am extremely disappointed and frustrated that Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a bill that would have helped our small, local, rural EMS departments as they work very hard to recruit and retain volunteers. 


    Letter to the editor: Support Muellenberg and Keith on April 5

    April 1st, 2022
    by

    My name is Jeremy Mack. I have been a homeowner in Ontario for the past eight years and am a life-long resident and 2003 graduate of the N-O-W School District.


    Letter to the editor: ‘Meet Anna Allison’

    April 1st, 2022
    by

    A notable quality of Ms. Anna Allison’s character that is, perhaps, easy to overlook, is that she lives out her conviction to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.”


    Letter to the editor: N.O.W. is the time to be positive and practical

    April 1st, 2022
    by

    Ever since I retired as Superintendent of the Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton School District, I have distanced myself from the school.


    Letter to the editor: Ontario residents need to register their dogs

    April 1st, 2022
    by

    Spring is upon us again; this is a gentle reminder to register your dogs. 


  • [Advertisement.]
  • [Advertisement.]
  • Archives