Before Wednesday morning, Columbia County Circuit Court Judge W. Andrew Voigt would have bet that few members of the county’s Board of Supervisors knew what judicial district the county’s courts are in, or why it matters.
But by the end of the meeting, he had the County Board’s unanimous support for his efforts to oppose a proposed realignment of those districts, which would have grouped Columbia County’s courts with those of the much more populous Dane and Rock counties.
Such outspoken opposition, Voigt said, could very well hurt his judicial career by branding him as a “boat rocker.” He couldn’t be dismissed as a judge – not unless the county’s voters don’t re-elect him, anyway – but he could, he said, be permanently removed from consideration as a future chief judge of a judicial district.
“The district is way more important to me than that title, or some post,” he said.
Voigt said the state Supreme Court and the director of state courts, Randy Koschnick, are considering a proposal to dissolve Judicial District 6 (one of 10), which includes the circuit courts in Columbia, Adams, Clark, Dodge, Green Lake, Juneau, Marquette, Portage, Sauk, Waushara and Wood counties.
All the counties in District 6 then would be realigned with one of the remaining nine judicial districts. The proposal, according to Voigt, calls for Columbia and Sauk counties to become part of a district that includes two of the state’s metropolitan counties, Dane and Rock.
That could hurt Columbia County’s court operations, Voigt said.
For example, substitute judges usually are assigned within their judicial districts – which could conceivably mean that one or more of Columbia County’s three judges could be tied up for weeks in a long trial in Dane or Rock county.
Voigt said Dane County’s 17 judges typically specialize, for two or three years on a rotating basis, in a specific type of case, whereas Columbia County judges all hear all different types of cases.
“We have to do everything, every day,” Voigt said. “Sometimes, I do a divorce case, followed by an injunction, then go back to some criminal cases.”
Voigt said as far as he knows, the only benefit to dissolving District 6 would be a $250,000 annual savings in the cost of operating the state’s courts.
The County Board often passes resolutions stating the county’s position on legislative issues, and forwards those resolutions to the governor and the lawmakers that represent Columbia County.
This resolution is unusual, however, because the Supreme Court, and not the Legislature, would have the final say on the matter.
Neither Voigt nor Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf could hazard a guess as to how influential the resolution might be.
“However,” Ruf said, “sometimes it’s in the interest of a county to take a position.”
To Voigt’s knowledge, no other county body, including those of the other District 6 counties, has gone on record on this issue, though others might now that Columbia County has passed the resolution in opposition.
According to Voigt, Columbia County is about in the middle of the 11 District 6 counties, in terms of the number of judges it has – three. One of the judge’s posts is vacant due to the recent retirement of Judge Alan White. The other judge is Todd Hepler.
There are 23 judges in District 6, he said, and they enjoy a collegial relationship that may not exist in the other districts, as well as much commonality in procedures such as court calendars.
Supervisor Matthew Rohrbeck of Portage said it makes little sense, in his mind, to align Columbia County’s judiciary with those of two of the state’s most populous counties.
“Just looking at this out of the blue,” he said, “I would say we have significantly more in common with the other District 6 counties.”
County Board Chairman Vern Gove praised the County Board’s Judiciary Committee for bringing the resolution for the County Board’s consideration, and praised Voigt for taking a stand.
“You’re really putting yourself out there, and I understand that,” Gove said. “That’s why we need to support this.”