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Support builds for judicial code amendment

In early 2013, the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission convened a working group to examine possible changes to the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct that would provide additional guidance to judges to help address one of the challenges raised by the growth in self-represented litigants. On September 13, 2013, the Commission filed Petition 13-14 with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court has now scheduled a hearing on the petition for February 24, 2014, at 9:45 am. Comments may be submitted in writing to the court or in person at the hearing.

Letters in support of the petition have now been filed by the Wisconsin Association of Judicial Court Commissioners, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judges, the Wisconsin Family Court Commissioners Association, the Executive Committee of the Wisconsin Trial Judges Association, and the Committee of Chief Judges. The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Board of Governors has also voted to support the petition.

The Commission’s working group was guided in part by Comment 4 to Rule 2.2 of the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct, adopted in 2007, and a 2012 joint resolution from the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators. The working group also gathered suggestions from judges and practicing attorneys. The working group then drafted a proposed petition to amend Supreme Court Rules 60.04. The full Commission approved the petition at its meeting on September 6.

The petition requests amendments to SCR 60.04(1)(g) and (h) and proposes the creation of SCR 60.04(1)(i), which would state as follows:

A judge shall uphold and apply the law and shall perform all duties of judicial office fairly and impartially. A judge shall also afford to every person who has a legal interest in a proceeding, or to that person’s lawyer, the right to be heard according to the law. It is consistent with this rule for a judge to make reasonable efforts to facilitate the ability of all litigants, including self-represented litigants, to be fairly heard.

A proposed comment to the new rule states that “A judge should exercise discretion consistent with the law and court rules to help ensure that all litigants are fairly heard. A judge’s responsibility to promote access to justice, combined with the growth in litigation involving self-represented litigants, warrants more frequent exercise of such discretion using techniques that enhance the process of reaching a fair determination in the case….” The petition lists examples of reasonable steps a judge may take in the exercise of such discretion.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has scheduled a public hearing to be held in the Supreme Court Room in the State Capitol on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, at 9:45 a.m.

Our previous update on this project can be found here.