State ex rel. Universal Processing Services of Wisconsin, LLC v. Circuit Court for Milwaukee County, 2017 WI 26, 374 Wis. 2d 26, 892 N. W.2d 267
This case concerned whether a circuit court impermissibly delegated its power to a referee to decide litigation on the merits. Writing for the majority, Abrahamson noted that the Wisconsin Constitution vests the “judicial power” of the state in the courts. She surveyed the history of referees (also called “special masters”) from the time Wisconsin was a territory through modern federal practice. She held that while referees are a valuable adjunct to the judicial process, they may not assume the place of a judge.
People who cannot afford lawyers often try to represent themselves in court. Their pleadings are difficult to decipher and do not follow the law. In ordinary civil cases, courts look at the allegations of the pleading, not the label, and liberally construe it to determine whether it states a claim for relief. In this case, Abrahamson held that the same rule applies to prisoners who file court pleadings without the assistance of a lawyer.
The judges on Wisconsin’s Court of Appeals are elected from 4 different districts in the state. Writing for a unanimous court, Abrahamson explained that the Wisconsin Constitution and statutes require the 4 districts to function as a unitary court of appeals. They cannot overrule each other. Only the Wisconsin Supreme Court may overrule, modify, or withdraw language from a published decision from the court of appeals.
Act 10 curtailed state employees’ collective bargaining rights and raised their contributions to their health care and pensions. A circuit court voided the Act because the legislature had violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law when enacting it. Proponents of the law petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court for a “supervisory writ” vacating the circuit court’s order. Because the proponents could not satisfy the requirements for a writ, a majority of the court recast their petition as a petition for “original jurisdiction.” Then they assumed jurisdiction and decided the merits of the controversy in one short order. Abrahamson dissented from this maneuver. She argued that the majority violated its own procedural rules and failed to provide the public with a reasoned analysis on politically charged issues. As a result, the order appeared to be based on the ideology of the majority and undermined public confidence in the court.