MONTELLO — Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler said she considers Marquette County a second home. Her family owns property there, and she’s sometimes written court decisions at their kitchen table.
The county seat was also a sort of home turf to former Chief Justice George Currie, who was schooled in Montello more than a century ago.
Ziegler said she’s looking forward to returning to the area in October when the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Montello in three cases as part of the court’s Justice on Wheels program.
“It’s really a neat program. It’s one of my favorite things we do,” Ziegler said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the students, the teachers and the public.”
The Oct. 14 visit begins with an opening ceremony at 9 a.m., followed by oral arguments in each case at 9:45 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
The cases include intoxicated driving, solicitation of first-degree reckless injury and marital settlement agreements.
The seven justices will deliberate in a jury room afterward to reach an initial conclusion, although a formal and final written decision will likely come months later, Ziegler said.
Tom Sheehan, the Supreme Court’s information officer, said the event is free and open to the public. But because seating is limited, community members are asked to contact the Supreme Court’s office ahead of time to reserve a spot.
Since 1993, the state Supreme Court has heard arguments in 30 counties outside of its Dane County headquarters. This is the first time the justices will hear arguments in Marquette County.
“It’s an incredible honor for the county to have them come. Not every county has had the opportunity,” Marquette County Judge Chad Hendee said. “We have a courthouse and courtroom to be proud of. I think it’s a pretty cool experience for everyone involved.”
Hendee said an overflow room with live video feed from the courtroom could accommodate additional people at the Marquette County Courthouse during the visit.
The state Supreme Court accepts cases that present novel legal issues of statewide significance.
Marquette County District Attorney Brian Juech said hearing the oral arguments and seeing how decisions are reached can benefit the public and attorneys alike, all while making the state’s highest court more accessible.
Juech said the outcome of two criminal cases the justices plan to hear could affect how he prosecutes crimes in the future. It will be his first time watching the justices hear arguments outside of Madison.
In the meantime, Juech said local court clerks, attorneys and judicial staff are all busy gathering relevant documents and statute books to stay organized ahead of time and help the hearings run smoothly.
Marie Puterbaugh, deputy clerk for the city of Montello, said residents will still be able to access the courthouse despite recent construction projects along Highway 23 near downtown.
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The courthouse at 77 W. Park St. has its own lot and additional parking is available at 20 Underwood Ave. The city also offers on-street parking on many streets in the downtown area.
Sheehan said the Justice on Wheels program offers students a chance to learn more about state and federal governments by getting involved in creative contests.
Some fifth-graders in Marquette County will submit essays to be recognized by the seven justices and entered into a local contest.
Ziegler said this year’s educational contest will focus on the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote. The program challenges children to tackle new subjects or issues outside of their routine classroom studies.
Hendee said the hearings also present educational value for students. As attorneys argue their positions, the justices interject with questions in a give-and-take style, allowing students to witness how the various parties interact with one another.
“It’s a really enriching experience for the kids,” Hendee said.
Access to history
When the Supreme Court last heard cases in Sauk County, Hendee said he was working as an attorney there and had the chance to present his own oral arguments before the court.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Hendee said.
Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, who lost a bid for a state Supreme Court seat in 2018, said the Justice on Wheels program has been largely well-received by people across Wisconsin.
“It is fair to say our Supreme Court has a longstanding history of reaching out to try to connect students in a way that makes the work they do in the court a little less mysterious than it otherwise would be,” he said.
The Supreme Court also routinely invites students to witness oral arguments in the East Wing of the Capitol in Madison, Screnock said. Justices sometimes explain to students how court procedures work.
Columbia County Judge Troy Cross was an assistant district attorney when the high court last visited Portage in 2011.
Cross said the justices heard at least one case relating to probable cause in intoxicated driving cases, and he said the experience opened his eyes a little more as to how the Supreme Court runs.
Cross said it will be interesting for students and voters to witness firsthand how the justices interact with one another.
“It takes some of mystery out of it, which I think is quite beneficial,” Cross said.