The Third Branch
Court reorganization celebrates 35th year
By Heidi Yelk, Wisconsin State Law Library
Aug. 1 marked the 35th anniversary of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, which was created in 1978 as part of a larger court reorganization that also introduced single-level trial courts throughout the state.
In the early 1970s, 24 of the 50 states had an intermediate appeals court. Wisconsin did not. At that point, Wisconsin had both county courts and circuit courts. Most appeals went directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which was then a mandatory court, not a discretionary court as it is today. By 1977, that structure had resulted in a reported 778 cases pending in the Supreme Court, with 600 scheduled for carryover to the next term.
Court reorganization required amending the Wisconsin Constitution – a relatively lengthy process. It began in 1975 with joint resolutions passed in the 1975 and 1977 legislatures. Then, the measure went before the state's voters. Although it passed with strong support, the idea was not without detractors.
The late Hon. John C. Shabaz (then a state representative) led an energetic charge against it, citing cost factors, along with his opposition to administrative provisions giving the Supreme Court authority over the entire court system and power to suspend or remove judges and justices.
There was also competition to determine where the new court would sit. While Milwaukee, Waukesha, Madison and Wausau were ultimately chosen as the four locations of the Court of Appeals, other cities that were considered included Stevens Point, Racine, Oshkosh, Green Bay, Superior, Eau Claire and La Crosse.
The state Law Library has several volumes of original documents and historical perspectives from this monumental period in Wisconsin court history.